Still, when our friend Susan asked if I could help with the outdoor end of the birthday festivities for her nine-year-old son Conor, I couldn't very well say no. After all, every Christmas, Susan and her husband Michael throw a holiday open house in our neighborhood at which I partake freely of Michael's Bushmill's and of Susan's ham.
And besides, Susan sounded a little frazzled.
The idea was for a group of some 20 of Conor's school friends, both boys and girls, to be divided up into two teams who would take turns making "trick" photographs with point-and-shoot cameras. This al fresco photo session was to take place in a nearby public park, after which everyone would take turns batting a candy-filled piñata then go back to Susan and Michael's house for ice cream and birthday cake.
A lot of things had to go right for this day to succeed the weather, the kids' behavior, the piñata, not to mention the "trickiness" of the trick photography.
And you know what? Sometimes things do go right.
It turned out to be a great afternoon. Heck, even I got some tricky pix.
[I probably could have gotten some birthday cake, too. But, in fact, I am on a diet.]
All Susan asked of me was that I lend a little bit of expertise to what I assumed would be an exercise in herding cats. These were, after all, kids, not MFA candidates. The plan was for me to meet them all at our local park on a recent Saturday afternoon. There Susan planned to lead the group through a series of trick photography adventures.
Right on time the group marched up the hill toward the park's playground, led by Susan lugging a ton of stuff. Her husband Michael manfully brought up the rear, his hands full as well.
It was impressive, all the effort Susan and Michael had expended to get props ready for this operation, but I wondered, given the decibel level of the children, whether anyone was going to pay any attention. But Susan had an ace-in-the-hole in the form of a terrific spiral-bound paperback book entitled (aptly enough) Tricky Pix: Do It Yourself Trick Photography, by Paula Weed and Carla Jimison (Klutz, Inc., $19.95 including a plastic-bodied reusable 35mm point and shoot camera.)
Thumbing through the book while everyone was assembling at the playground, I immediately was struck with how clever and simple or how simply clever was the whole concept. None of the "tricks" that the authors suggested was beyond the reach of the average boy or girl. Most had to do with simple tricks of perspective requiring nothing more than lining up subjects carefully or skewing horizon lines. Everything could be accomplished in real time, at the playground, while the creative juices and therefore all the fun were at their peak.
What a blessedly simple alternative to, say, building a birthday party around having kids traipse around the park for an hour with digital cameras, then return to a darkened room so that everyone could try to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse in Photoshop. Even the thought made me cringe, especially since we were lucky to have a simply brilliant sunny day in which to play.
Susan and Michael supplied each child with a plastic point-and-shoot film camera loaded with a 27-shot cassette. [This time around I was the odd man out, with my digital Fuji Finepix S2.]
One of the first picture exercises involved a variation on the old reliable: stick-your-head-through-a-goofy-sign-and-have-your-picture-taken. One of the choices Susan came up with was an undersea motif, complete with shark mask. There were plenty of takers both shooters and posers and here I was able to add a little bit to the creative mix as well.
You know, I said, as one shark-boy stuck his head through the hole, you don't always have to shoot straight on try weird angles.
With that, I stuck my camera right under the "shark's" nose and snapped the shutter, without even looking. It turned out to be a great pic and it happily established me as a reasonably cool guy, despite my grey beard.
Still, probably the favorite Tricky Pic of the day was the disembodied head. And all it involved was a trick of perspective and a little misdirection.
The most important element was a wall or some other object in our case it was a big tree trunk to hide the "head's" body. Then all you need is someone to sit on the wall (or tree trunk) facing away from the photographer and scrunching his or her head down and out of sight.
See for yourself the effect is eerie, especially if the "body" places a hand on its "head" as if it were giving it a well-earned rest.
Fun, too, and even easier than the head trick was the wall-scaling photo. Our park's brick walkway was perfect for this because it so resembled a brick wall. We simply had someone get down on his or her belly and pretend to arduously scale this dangerous verticality, a la Spider Man. Then all you have to do is stand over the subject (making sure to keep your shadow out of the picture) and shoot away.
Even when you know how it's done, it looks real.
Now that's trick photography.
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.