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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Of Proust, Pictures and Damn Fine Home Fries

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I never ate at the E.C. Does It Cafe in Ellicott City, Md., but I know the place like I know my own hand.

It's much like the WA-CO Diner in Eastport, Maine, or the old Tigger's Tump in Chincoteague, Va. or, for that matter, the Tastee Diner in Bethesda – all places where I've happily and hungrily hung my hat over the last several decades.

Neighborhood places of familiar faces and friendly shadows.

The E.C. Does It is no more, gutted by fire years ago, but Clarence Carvell made a wonderful, evocative black and white photograph that captured the place in all its tin-ceilinged, worn countertop, picture window glory. Anyone who occasionally has felt the need for a bottomless cup of coffee or for some really home-made home fries will look at his photograph and smell the cooking.

This reversal on Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past is what happens when people like Clarence and all the other talented men and women represented in the current show at the Howard County Arts Center document their surroundings, in this case Ellicott City, Maryland. It's one thing to take a snapshot on the fly; quite another to make a photograph with care and caring.

Carvell did that in his elegantly made time exposure rich in texture and detail. Tom Berault did it too with his series of magnificent available light studies of the old Oella Mill – remarkable photographs remarkably printed. Barbara Maloney not only gave us a look into another era with her photos of men and women in Civil War period dress, she also evoked the look of early photographic printing through her alternative process.

These photographers and their colleagues in the Maryland Photographic Alliance, which created the show, also have created a sense of place with images that evoke memory. They capture the past while celebrating the present. It was my pleasure, not just to select images for this show, but also to have a small hand in guiding the process that created them. Above all I wanted the work in this show to resonate with the viewer on more than one level. I wanted the viewer to be drawn into the pictures – for both longtime residents and first time visitors to experience Ellicott City through these pictures with more than their eyes.

Thus, we look at Dave Hornick's moody night landscapes – little jewels of photographs – and can smell the moistened sidewalks after an evening rain.

We look at Rod Barr's whimsical picture of a woman in period dress (again at the old Patapsco Female Institute where Barbara Maloney roamed with her camera) tying a blindfold over the eyes of a smiling young Brownie scout, while another little girl, looking oh so serious, is barely visible over a fortune-telling booth. This is a wonderfully human picture, one that triggered in me memories of county fairs and other gatherings I covered while doing my book on rural Maine. That, in turn, triggered my salivary glands as I recalled all of the delicious, greasy and calorie-laden stuff that was for sale at these places and that I sampled with abandon as I shouldered my Hasselblad in search of pictures.

Perhaps because photography depends ultimately on a machine, whether it be a Leica M6 or an oatmeal box pinhole camera, the tendency is to judge photography's impact solely on the basis of what that machine produces: the image itself. This, in turn, can lead to navel-gazing discussions of technique, f-stops, film, digital tweaking, etc., etc.

Though as a juror or curator I often give high marks for good technique, I think I have had enough experience as a photographer and, yes, as a writer, to know that all the technique in the world can not infuse emotion or sensual impact into something that is flat, sterile or cliche'd. To impute importance to a photograph because of its pedigree ("She made it with a Leica; it must be good") is to fall victim to the dreaded "if only's" – i.e.: "If only I had a Leica, Nikon, Linhof, you name it, I'd be a good photographer too."

When really first rate photographers talk about their cameras becoming an extension of themselves, they really are saying the camera isn't nearly as important as the eye that guides it.

Additionally, the better photographers, especially those working in fast-changing, even dangerous, situations, trust their instincts enough not to waste too much time fiddling with dials and buttons. Think back to photographs that have impacted you greatly and I am certain that some of them were gritty, grainy, maybe even out of focus, yet which captured an ineffable emotion that hit you between the eyes.

That's the same reason a hastily drawn sketch by a great artist can evoke infinitely more feeling for a place, a person, an event, than can a meticulously painted image of the same thing done by a mediocre journeyman.

Photography provides us with the choice of using our equipment however we want: on a tripod making a long time exposure, or shooting from the hip to capture something as fleeting as a child's smile. The photographers in this show about Ellicott City, Maryland clearly demonstrate mastery of both techniques.

[Portrait of Ellicott City, Maryland. Photographs by the Maryland Photographic Alliance. Through August 15. Howard County Center for the Arts, 8510 High Ridge Road, Ellicott City, Maryland. Information: go to www.hocoarts.org]

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.

©Clarence Carvell
Clarence Carvell's marvelous time exposure of the E.C. Does It Cafe in Ellicott City, Maryland (get it?) evokes all the memories of great diners and small family run restaurants. This is not the kind of picture one could make at, say Denny's.

©Barbara Maloney
Barbara Maloney used a perfect aerial vantage point and the painterly look of an alternative process to produce a picture that looks as if it might well have been made by Mathew Brady or one of his associates during the Civil War.

©Rod Barr
The venue was the same as Maloney's picture above, but Rod Barr's whimsical picture is decidedly modern – in the delighted smile of the Brownie scout being blindfolded, as well as in the enigmatic look of her serious-minded friend by the fortune-telling booth.


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

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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The Classy Hassy H1: Portable Studio Camera

Hail Mary – and Other Divine Photo Tricks

Barbara Southworth's Panoramic Poetry

The Color Cure