Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

An Urban 'Segway' To Easier Shooting

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

You're a professional photographer assigned to cover a press conference downtown.

Downtown Washington, downtown New York, downtown L.A. – it doesn't matter.

By definition, you are carrying what today is a photojournalist's standard – and heavy – kit: two camera bodies (both digital, or maybe one film, one digital), several lenses, including maybe an 80-200mm zoom and/or 300mm tele, a monopod, a flash unit with high-voltage battery, a cell phone, film and CF cards – as well as a laptop computer. The whole rig easily can push 40 pounds or more.

In the old days, you could have schlepped all this onto a bus – or subway, if your town had one – and still be several blocks from your assignment. Far more likely, due to the weight of the gear, you would be forced to drive to the job yourself and park at a downtown lot where short term clients at primo locations are treated like last-minute business class fliers: forced to pay big-time top dollar – at least $18 an hour in midtown Manhattan, not all that much less in downtown DC.

[What about a cab, you say? In DC they are problematic at best and not nearly reliable enough when time is pressing ("But I called this in an hour ago and he's still not here!!) And hiring a private car service, though preferable to a taxi, can be ridiculously expensive.]

To make matters worse, if your day typically included more than one stop at other nearby, but not all that nearby, locations (say to meet with potential clients or to drop off work personally) you could wind up moving your car to another lot – or try to find some questionably legal space on-street – and pay an easy 30 bucks just on parking, never mind on gas for the car and the inevitable traffic ticket when a cop or meter-reader sees your pathetic attempt to park illegally and invisibly.

And for all that effort, you still would be schlepping a lot of equipment along a lot of city blocks and up a lot of steps.

That's what went racing through DC photographer John Harrington's mind a little over a year ago when inventor Dean Kamen and Amazon.com chairman Jeff Bezos

showed off the Segway "human transport" vehicle on "Good Morning America" – and more important, announced a way for the average Joe or Jane to get one.

The sexy Segway had been on the public's radar for nearly a year by then, its long-secret multi-million-dollar development having exploded into a nationwide publicity blitz in December of 2001. But back then the device only was available to government and industry clients: touted as a boon to beat cops, park rangers, letter carriers and package deliverers.

But now – November 18, 2002 – as Harrington, 37, watched on TV from his home transfixed and cogitating, there were Kamen and Bezos talking up what to Harrington was the invention of the decade, if not the century.

"My mind just kept racing faster and faster," John recalled recently, "thinking about all the times I've raced from the White House to a press conference, from a press conference to the Capitol. Up K Street dropping off stuff to a client. The times when it's too far too walk, but it's rush hour and [it makes no sense] to drive. Or the times when it's too short to drive between jobs, but too far to walk."

Harrington was whipping himself into a frenzy over this as Bezos declared that the public now could order the Segway on Amazon.com.

That was all Harrington needed to hear. Within twenty minutes he had bought one – and has never looked back. It cost him five large, but as of this writing he figures he has saved some $1400 in parking and other expenses – and has reaped the priceless benefit of convenience, efficiency and relief to his back and knees. He said he expects his Segway to pay for itself in another year or two.

In some ways, the Segway Human Transporter is nothing more than a sophisticated scooter. But, my, how sophisticated. Five (count'em, five) separate gyroscopes keep the thing upright. Making the Segway go without a conventional accelerator, or stop without a brake pedal, is damn near magical. The device is the brainchild of Kamen, a 52-year-old self-taught physicist, mechanical engineer (and college dropout) who has built a multi-million dollar technological empire out of his fertile brain, and developed a deserved reputation as a design wizard, especially in the field of medical technology. While still in college, for example, he invented the first drug-infusion pump, and later the first portable insulin pump and first portable dialysis machine. In addition, Kamen has pioneered a number of different kinds of heart stents, one of which is in Vice President Richard Cheney.

Before Segway, Kamen probably was best known for the IBOT wheelchair, developed for and funded by Johnson & Johnson. Among other things, the six-wheel chair can go up and down curbs, climb stairs – and even rise up on its wheels to put the occupant at eye-level with the (currently) able-bodied.

Though Segway is not marketed as a device to improve mobility for the disabled, John Harrington says he knows two people with multiple sclerosis who have benefited greatly from Segway's ability to move them to and fro.

For John, though, the machine has been a godsend just for the way it lets him do his regular job of covering news in Washington. [When he's not doing that, he is working on a series of picture books, "My World: Young Native Americans Today," for the Smithsonian's Museum of the American Indian. The second volume in the series is the just-published Meet Mindy, a Native Girl from the Southwest (Smithsonian, $15.95)]

"I often take the Segway on the Metro," John told me. "Naylor Road on the Green Line, then Metro downtown, usually to Gallery Place since I don't have to transfer. Then I am centrally located at 9th and H Sts. and glide to wherever the assignment is. When I drive, I often either will park once in a parking garage, and then glide around to various destinations, or I'll park in a place where parking is free, then head out from there."

Like many cities around the country, Harrington says, DC, Maryland and Virginia view the Segway like a pedestrian. That is, it is allowed on the sidewalk, and in fact is prohibited from operating in the street. Weighing perhaps 65 pounds, the machine is a cinch to put into the trunk of a car and seems to present little, if any, threat to people walking down a sidewalk since the thing can operate nicely at speeds not much greater than that of a vigorous stroll.

So portable is the Segway that yours truly, a cynical native New Yorker, wondered how easy one would be to steal. John conceded that the Segway is lightweight, but it's also fairly compact once its control bar is lowered. On one job, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, he noted, he just walked the machine up the museum's steps (very easily, too, he said) and simply stored his Segway away from prying eyes in the Corcoran's coat check room. Another time, as Judy and I were attending a reception at the National Museum of American History, we ran into a camera-toting John as he was covering the event. "Where's the Segway?" I asked him. "Right there," he answered, pointing over his shoulder at the Segway, sitting obediently by the inside front door of the museum like a well-behaved pet with house privileges.

[Not everyone is so glad to see the machine. Last fall, on another job that both of us were covering, John rolled into the State Department lobby and was told that the thing was a no-no.]

To date, John's use of the Segway has mostly been to get to and from a job. But, in the right circumstance, it also can be a valuable creative tool. "When it comes to foot races," he told his colleagues in the White House News Photographers Association, "I can keep pace with runners and make great pictures of the racers against a blurred background."

John demonstrated this when he brought his Segway to my house recently. Looking all the world like a rodeo trick rider, Harrington showed how he could even crouch down on the Segway and shoot at eye-level – all the while going at a fairly good clip.

When it came my turn to ride the thing, I was a little nervous. I was, after all, 20 years older than John, but he said it would be easy. He was right. Standing on the machine was a piece of cake, but I couldn't dope out how to make it go forward. "Just think about going forward," John said.

I said something unprintable.

"No, really, trust me."

Sure enough, I "thought" about going forward – and I did! In fact, what had happened was that the very sensitive gyroscopes in the Segway had detected a subtle pitch forward and begun to turn the wheels in that direction. Standing up straight gently stopped the thing. A slight tilt backwards moved the Segway to the rear.

Simply remarkable.

As remarkable as not having to pay for downtown parking.

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
DC editorial and commercial photographer John Harrington prepares to mount his Segway. Note: the saddlebags hold gear, not batteries. [Also – Don't call it a scooter; it's a "human transport" device.]

©Frank Van Riper
On an early run-through, John shows how he can shoot from the hip. Impressive, I said, but what if you want to aim through your camera's finder?

©Frank Van Riper
No problem, John said, lowering the control stick and straddling the Segway as if he were a trick rider at the rodeo. And yes, he was going at a good clip when I made this picture. John notes this is a great way to get shots of marathoners or speed-walkers, especially if you let the background blur.

©John Harrington
If I can do it, anyone can. Just seconds after I got on a Segway for the first time in my life, I actually was moving down my street, a danger to no one, not even myself. And no, I am not standing still while posing for a picture. And yes, I am having a hell of a time. The ease of making this thing go was mind-blowing. Do I absolutely, positively have to have one now? No, but I certainly can understand how it would make life simpler for a lot of photographers.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will teach a 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 19th and go through March 25th. and will be open to all students who would like to improve their photographic story-telling and/or darkroom skills. Class hours are 7pm-10:30pm. Students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, and pursue that project during the course of the workshop. Weekly discussions of each student's progress will be held, both in class and privately, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the class. Students wishing to also accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: www.glenechopark.org/brochure.pdf



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

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Lost Camera: a Holiday Puzzle You Can Solve

Dentro 'Il Circolo': Inside 'The Circle'

'I've Always Been Crazy' ...For Honky Tonk

Traveling Photogs Finally Get a Break

Loving At First Sight

Again in Search of Acqua Alta