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Building a Portfolio – One Stone at a Time

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

With the possible exception of a perfect tarte tatin that Judy and I made from scratch many years ago, the stone grill you see here is the proudest thing I ever have made with my own two hands.

I admit that this grill, which sits proudly in the front garden of our summer house in Maine, is not the most perfect example of the stonebuilder's art. In fact, a real stonebuilder probably would look at my grill and, if he were kind, call it a very nice effort by an amateur.

But that's precisely the point.

My late friend and colleague Fred Maroon loved to say that he hoped he always would be an amateur photographer, even though he was one of the most widely published, praised and pursued professional photographers in the country. "Amateur," Fred noted, came from the Latin verb "amare," to love, and an amateur is someone who pursues a path for the sheer joy of it, not for recognition or gain. And certainly, during the two summers that my family and I worked on our grill, we had a ball.

When I was first "pursuing" a grill – a Bronx boy who had absolutely no experience building such things, but who loved to cook and especially to cook over an open fire – I did what anyone else would do: I read everything I could on building with stone. The local library and Amazon.com loved me.

One of the best books I found on the subject, even if it described some projects I'd never dare attempt, was The Stonebuilder's Primer (Firefly, $17.95) by a Canadian, Charles Long. Long, the intro said, "began building his house on a bedrock farm in eastern Ontario in 1975 and just couldn't stop."

The book contained practical information on hauling, cutting and manhandling stone. But it was the book's epilogue that contained the added gift of wisdom and which called to mind parallels in, of all places, the darkroom.

The satisfaction in building with stone, the author said, "is in the doing, not in seeing it done...To spend the day in the sun, with something real to show for the effort, something that can be touched and seen, something that serves both function and beauty, something that will not change in a turbulent world – all that makes the builder glow with the joy of creation."

Though Long speaks of spending a "day in the sun," here I could not help but think of being in the darkroom, producing archival black and white prints on actual paper from actual negatives – immutable, permanent things, not computer-generated facsimiles of questionable provenance born of a digital camera's bits and bytes.

[It's the very "virtualness" of digital photography that bores me and gives me a headache. The ethereal, never-quite-there quality of it all – not to mention the inescapable fact that the computer has robbed photography of its already shaky reputation as a recorder of truth, so easy has it become to manipulate images and leave no footprint. Then too there is digital's damnable ability to vaporize images at the errant push of a button. And don't get me started on the difficulty of real archival storage and retrieval.]

Is it any wonder I'm drawn to the rugged reality of rocks?

But the author/stonebuilder was not finished describing his tangible joys of working with the real.

Actual work with actual things, he said, "is a pleasure that even a complete novice can quickly find. The beauty, you see, is mostly in the stone. The mason merely composes it, assembling the pieces to suit his purpose. Professional skills may be necessary to build great works of beauty, but amateur skills suffice to build small works of equal beauty..." (emphasis added)

That's the money quote.

"Small works of equal beauty" rivaling, for their creators anyway, the best in the world, be they stone buildings or photographs. The path to fulfillment–and every so often to money and to greatness–begins with the realization that the artist has only to please him or herself. This is not to say that the work that you love now will be work that others will love, or will be work that you will love twenty years from now – or will be the work that defines you. Even Ansel Adams reprinted scores of his greatest images later in his life to reflect his own changing tastes and preferences.

The important thing is: It Doesn't Matter. You build a portfolio best image by best image, or stone by stone, if you will. In photography, the beauty part is that, as you grow better and more confident in your art and in your technical skills, you can edit out the lesser work to make your portfolio an ever-changing, ever-improving thing. [I admit, it's tough to "edit" a concrete and stone grill once it's finished. But the fact that I gave that grill my total attention and my best creative shot, means that it will live much longer in my favored memory than if I simply knocked it together, caring only to have a holder for hot charcoal.]

In so many fields those who do not work at their best are kidding themselves if they think they can save their best stuff for later.

Later is now.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
It took two summers and lots of rock, mortar, cinderblock, bricks and beer, but the stone grill that I built along with my family is the proudest thing I've ever done with my own two hands. Granted, it's not perfect. The perfection was in the enjoyment that we had building it – the same kind of joyful journey you should have when you build your photographic portfolio.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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