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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Access Equals Success

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

One recent evening I began curating a photography show of work by a group of excellent amateur and semi-professional photographers. The show, which will go up in June at the Howard County Arts Center, will document Ellicott City, Md.

My first job as curator that night was to go over scores of photographs – as it happened they were nearly all well printed black and white images – to see if any themes, artful juxtapositions or other thoughts occurred to me. The best thing about this gig (aside from the fact that I was treated to dinner at a very nice Italian restaurant) was that the photographers of all this work were there with me. In other words, I was not "judging" a show by selecting (or selecting out) individual images, being careful in the interest of fairness never to have even a hint of who made a particular picture. I was in on the ground floor, as it were, looking at the "take" of these exhibiting photographers, talking to them about their work, and making suggestions about what I thought was missing as the future show began to take shape in my mind.

[The other neat thing about this evening, albeit disquieting at first, was that not every image on display was a final print. In fact, there were a fair number of work prints – and some photographers even brought several different versions of the same photograph for me to consider. Once I got over my initial personal aversion – "Never, ever show anyone a print that you do not think is perfect" – I was flattered that these folks thought enough of me to ask my opinion and comfortable enough with me to take in what I had to say.]

Looking at the prints that lay at my feet or that were spread out on a table, I certainly didn't lack for any abstracts – lots of late afternoon shadows making interesting patterns through iron fences or stairways. Plenty of landscapes, too: rugged wooden fences in overgrown fields, moody late-night vistas, a couple of knock-yer-socks off industrial scenics of factory silos and shiny trucks.

Lots of that, and then some.

What I did not see a lot of was people.

It's not that there weren't any photographs of people. In fact, there were several superb portraits and other photos containing people as key elements. There just weren't many of them. And if the ostensible purpose of the upcoming exhibition is to document a city, not merely a collection of buildings, the people who live and work within those buildings are very important photographically.

This is one of the toughest lessons for a fledgling documentary photographer to learn – lots more difficult than figuring how to load an M-series Leica or a Hasselblad film back. Documenting a place almost always means interacting with, and then photographing, its people. Note the phrase "interacting with." I am not talking about stalking someone anonymously with a 300mm telephoto, thinking you can cut yourself a slice of life by stealth.

It just doesn't work that way.

Interacting has been what Judy and I have been doing during more than five years of location work in Venice. Obviously a place like Venezia fairly brims with stunning architecture and places, and we've done our share of scenics – all in anticipation of exhibitions and ultimately a book. [In fact, we have a show of our Venice work set for the fall at Washington's Troyer Gallery near Dupont Circle. Watch this space for details – Hope you can make the opening.]

But the work that I hope will set ours apart from goodness knows how many other volumes featuring moody pictures of bridges, gondolas and carnival-goers hiding behind masks are the photos that Judy and I have "earned" through access and interaction with real people, from rich to poor, living life in the most beautiful city in the world.

What produces photographs like those shown here involves more than simply asking people for permission to take their picture. (Admittedly this first step often is the most daunting to photographers who hate to emerge from behind their cameras and actually talk to their subjects.)

What I am talking about often involves considerable advance spadework and planning: research, phone calls, letters and (now) e-mail. In fact, a great series of pictures that I made only last January at Venice's huge working commercial port at Marghera – pictures made from the hulls of ships to the tops of cranes – was the result of a number of letters and phone calls, not to mention the assistance of our friend Barbara, a delightful English-speaking Italian translator who not only has become a dear friend to Judy and me, but who has more than once served as a facilitator as my wife and I photographed la vita Veneziana.

That said, however, sometimes all gaining access can take may be a simple, well-timed conversation.

Consider Judy's wonderfully informal portrait of Rabbi Elia Richetti, made in Venice's famous Ghetto Nuovo.

Jews in Venice have played an important part in the city's life for centuries and Judy and I wanted to reflect some of that in photographs. We had visited the ghetto's community center and toured its multiple synagogues, but architectural shots were not on our mind.

I asked at the center's bookshop who I might contact to photograph children studying their heritage and immediately was told I should speak to the Italian rabbi.

"Where can I find him?" I asked.

"There he goes now!" my host said, pointing out the door to a bearded, black-coated figure crossing the ghetto's main square.

I ran to the door through which the rabbi had just entered, knocked and immediately came face to face with him. In Italian I said I was an American photographer working on a book about Venetian life and would like to photograph him teaching a class of children.

"What a nice idea!" the rabbi said in perfect English. And within the week, Judy and I were photographing Rabbi Richetti and an exuberant class of young boys and girls studying Hebrew.

One important note: Admittedly, I did not go through the drill I might have followed if I were photographing in an American school – asking permission of all the school officials, sending letters home to parents giving them the option of not having their kids photographed, etc. In this case, I admit, I wanted to get these great pictures as quickly as I could lest the opportunity and our limited time expire. And we almost got burned for it.

The rabbi couldn't have been nicer and the kids were ecstatic at the prospect of being in a book. During a break, however, a woman who seemed to be an official of the school happened in with some other kids, saw Judy photographing Richetti and the children (I happened to be in another room, reloading my cameras) and promptly went ballistic in rapid-fire Italian.

Judy simply smiled and pointed to the Rabbi, who, happily, didn't take any guff. He sternly and with equal brio (he was, after all, Italian too) informed the woman that if she had a problem she should take it up with him. (Ultimately, she served us cookies. And when we got back to the States I made sure to send the rabbi a bunch of prints, as well as a signed copy of my Maine book.)

There was no friction at all the time Judy and I visited the count and the countess in their Venetian Palazzo.

You probably might guess that I don't usually hang out with royalty, but in this case the fact that we had made contact with one of Venice's top glass merchants, Giampaolo Nason, got us this valuable entree.

Months before, wedding clients in the States whom we had told about our Venice project put us in touch with their neighbor, Giampaolo's brother Giovanni. After a friendly chat with Giovanni (in English) he, in turn, made an international call on our behalf to Giampaolo.

That led to unlimited access to some of the finest glassblowers in Murano – master craftsmen working with only their assistants in a cavernous studio, producing stunning work as Judy and I burned roll after roll of film, not believing our good fortune.

But our luck wasn't over, as Giampaolo asked, almost nonchalantly: "Would you like to see a palazzo?"

That led to our visit another day to the gorgeous in town palazzo of count Girolamo Marcello Del Majno and his wife, the countess Antonella. They served us coffee and biscotti, answered all our questions, led us on a tour of the place that even included the kitchen and their young daughter's room – and graciously posed for pictures.

Do you see the pattern here? Wedding clients saying, oh, you should talk to our neighbor. The neighbor saying, sure, he'll call his brother. The brother giving us nearly unheard of access behind the scenes at a glassworks – and even more spectacular access into a Venetian architectural treasure and the people who inhabit it.

All of this is work. And a lot of it has nothing to do with working a camera.

But it does have a lot to do with ultimately making great pictures.

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.

© Judith Goodman
Informal portrait of Rabbi Elia Richetti captures the gentle nature of this man as he teaches a Hebrew lesson to a group of boys and girls in Venice's Ghetto Nuovo.

©Frank Van Riper
At the other extreme, this elegant shot of a Venetian count shows him posing near the music room of his sumptuous palazzo near the center of Venice. In each photograph, the name of the game was access – and interacting with the subjects to make an effective picture.

©Frank Van Riper
This on-the-fly portrait of a master glassblower on Murano was the result of an involved series of contacts and phones calls – beginning with wedding clients in Washington.


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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