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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Documenting a Small Town in Missouri

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Hermann, Missouri is a small well-scrubbed, well-mannered town sitting on the rocky bluffs of the Missouri River, about an hour and a half from St. Louis. Even today, a fair number of its 3,000 inhabitants can trace their lineage to the members of the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia who moved west in 1836 to found a town that would preserve German culture and customs.

In fact, drive into Hermann from route 19, across the gorgeously intricate (though soon to be replaced) steel suspension bridge, and the first thing you see is a sign saying "Welcome to Hermann. Home of the Maifest" (as well as the Oktoberfest, wurstfest, etc.)

This is the small town America of quiet corners, sun-dappled dawns and of people who meet your gaze. A place where dogs rest in the middle of little-traveled streets and where the manicured city park features campsites and tent sites for ten bucks a night.

But Hermann also is a place where teenagers can grow up too fast for their own good, where the knife edge of financial success or ruin can slice through a single corn or grape harvest, where, as in any place, sickness and despair can strike at any time, and where, for better or worse, everyone knows (or thinks they know) everyone else's business.

To make a photographic record of such a place that produces more than superficial images requires a boatload of research, a high level of technical skill, commitment, and not a little bit of luck. It also requires time, something that a flying squad of 40 photographers and photojournalists did not have last month as part of the University of Missouri's storied week-long workshop in documentary photography.

That virtually every one of these mostly young shooters – many with scant professional experience – produced picture stories of warmth, depth, beauty and intelligence by week's end is a testament not just to their own skill, but to the tough-love teaching of the professional photographers and editors who guided them through what for many may be the best week so far of their photographic lives.

I was in Hermann this year, from start to finish: to observe, occasionally to speak, and every so often to shoot. What follows are my fly-on-the-wall observations of this remarkable week.

The Missouri Photo Workshop began more than a half century ago, in 1949, the creation of the late Clifton and Vilia Edom, husband and wife photographic educators who valued documentary photography and who sought to pass on its traditions and structure to succeeding generations of photographers. Every year since, the program (part of the University of Missouri's journalism department) has set out to document life in a different Missouri town. "Show truth with a camera," Cliff Edom said. Among the "truths" photographed this year in Hermann were these:

– the solitary drudgery and courage of a young mother raising her brood while her pilot husband faces a second tour of duty in Iraq.

– the race-the-clock, beat-the-weather intensity of harvest time in a wine vineyard, where a whole year's success can depend on bringing in the grapes on time.

– the pluck and grace of a wheelchair-bound grade school boy who takes his disability in stride, even to the extent of consoling other kids when they are having a bad day.

– the furry calming solace of a Golden Retriever, used by a school counselor in class when she counsels hyperactive and disruptive kids.

– the in your face sensuality of a midriff-baring, cigarette smoking schoolgirl of 13 and her coterie of hangers-on and friends.

– the contrasting character of another 13-year-old girl, this one the middle child of a large, religious and home-schooled group of kids who take turns looking after one another and doing chores.

– the quiet dignity of a 90-plus-year-old nursing home resident who is refusing treatment for her colon cancer, lest it deprive her of being able to spend her final months in the company of her few remaining friends.

I came to Missouri as a guest of Nikon, which has sponsored the MPW, as well as many other such photographic seminars and workshops for decades, currently through its Spirit Initiative Program. Besides helping finance these events, Nikon backs up its bucks with equipment and technical expertise. In Hermann, for example, veteran Nikon tech rep Carol Fisher offered a succession of Nikon loaner cameras and lenses, invaluable technical advice, as well as a bottomless jar of M&M's.

The 40 participants in this year's program each had to submit a portfolio for review, a written essay about what he or she hoped to accomplish and a letter of recommendation. They were a varied and far-flung lot. Alfredo Cardenas, a photojournalist, came from Ecuador, Gang Wu, another photojournalist, from China, and Uwe Martin, studying at Missouri on a Fulbright, came from Germany.

Domestic "workshoppers" as they were called, came from all over the country. Most were in their mid-20s to early 30s with maybe a maximum of 3-4 years pro shooting under their belt. But not all were fulltime photojournalists, or so young, for that matter. Ruth Anne Kocour, in her 50s, was a real estate agent from Galena, Nevada, and a well known mountain trekker and author. The senior member of the class, Ted Howell, a freelance commercial and editorial shooter from nearby DeSoto, Mo., was even older. (He and I hit it off just fine.)

The concept of this workshop is deceptively simple: come up with a picture story idea (or several, in fact), based on actual research in the town, pitch one of them successfully to your two-person faculty team leaders, shoot the sucker, then go home at week's end a better photographer for the experience.

But, of course, it wasn't that easy. First off, the team leaders – veteran journalists all – were no pushovers. Oh, they were supportive, alright. Pulitzer winner Kim Komenich, a bearded bear of a guy and a terrific teacher, could coax a smile out of even the most despondent student. He just wasn't going to approve a half-baked story idea. Mary Anne Golon, Time Magazine's picture editor, was equally blunt in telling students that this was a week to make the best use of their access to such high-end talent. Afterwards, she noted, back in the real world, none of them was going to be as reachable.

Then there were the technical and journalistic constraints. As explained by MPW co-director David Rees, a key part of the workshop was teaching students to see: to see light, to watch carefully for a telling gesture or composition; in short, to teach photographers to immerse themselves in their story. Toward that end – and to keep anyone from motor-driving his or her way through the week (hoping quality photographs would emerge from quantity) – students were strictly limited to only 400 digital images for the week: the equivalent of roughly ten rolls of film. In addition, everyone had to shoot by available light – that is: no flash whatsoever – the better to observe the quality of light in a picture, and also to make the photographer's impact on the story as subtle as humanly possible.

One more thing: it was strictly forbidden for the photographers to direct their subjects or to rearrange objects in any way.[In an era, for example, when television and the Internet are awash in raunch, paranoia and half-baked opinions and ideas – when even the establishment media are accused of cutting corners to peddle a story – this kind of pristine objectivity and fairness was like a breath of pure oxygen.]

So story ideas withered and died by the dozen, as precious days flew by. One student thought she had a natural: following a farmer through his harvest. But as her team leaders, National Geo picture editor Dennis Dimick and George Olson, Travel Picture Editor for Sunset Magazine, pointed out: what do you have for a second act?

The student didn't have one, beyond a few suppositions.

"I think you need to dial back on what you think the story will be," Olson declared. "What you've described so far is fiction based on a real-life character."

Frustration built. A 16-year-old bow-hunter, who had said he would be out hunting bright and early the next morning (I'll meet you around dawn) overslept and the story died. The black chief of police – a real anomaly in a predominantly white town like Hermann – agreed to be photographed initially, then backed off, perhaps thinking all the photographer wanted was a few quick snaps, not blanket coverage. Happily, photographer Velina Nurse persisted and was able to put together a piece combining what she had gotten from the chief initially with later photos of his dance teacher wife surrounded by tow-headed little girls in leotards.

In the early critiques of student work, projected in power point on a big screen so that all could benefit from the exercise, it was clear that many stories lacked narrative power: the traditional beginning, middle and end. "Pictures depend on each other for context," the group was told "The most effective stories make you think differently."

And, perhaps most important: photo essays, arguably the highest form of picture story, betray an individual point of view – not one drawn from thin air or from pre-conceived ideas, but one based on solid, factual, reporting and research.

– "Don't chronicle; interpret."

– "Don't photograph what they are; photograph who they are."

– "Learn the difference between covering a story and telling a story."

For students still floundering for ideas, George Olson was both blunt and practical: "Look for the local communications, not the official communications." Sure, he noted, the stories in the local paper might be a help, but often it's the classified ads that can tip you to bigger things, not to mention quirkier stories that others might not see.

Same thing with local community bulletin boards.

Once a story idea jells, said the Washington Post's Lois Raimondo, the more research you do, the better you will be able to get into the skin of your subject or subjects. "The more information you have," she noted, "the more they will respect you and let you into their lives." The "ideal place to be" when doing a picture story, she went on, is when a subject no longer regards you as an outsider: when, for example, "you're no longer a guest in the house."

Slowly, miraculously, the stories came together. Some students literally spent the night with their subjects, to get pictures when everyone awoke. (That kind of access doesn't just happen; it requires building trust, as well as a real commitment by the photographer.)

Slowly, but inevitably, the magic happened: when subjects became so comfortable with the photographers that they all but disappeared. That's when the good pix came: from ones as touching as "Father Bill" Debo ministering to a dying patient in his hospital bed, to the comical poignancy of someone beyond caring carefully cradling a beer in his two leathery hands before closing time at a local bar.

Over the past two decades, I have studied at many photography workshops – and more recently have taught them as well [see box]. But whether student or teacher, I never have attended one like this: so heavy with talent, so full of possibilities, so daunting at first, so rewarding at the end.

At the conclusion of this year's Missouri workshop, with the final student slide shows prompting cheers, and even a few tears, Dennis Dimick was asked why he keeps returning to teach at MPW:

"It's a nice way to get in touch with a new generation," he said. "A way for me to give back to others what I've gotten over the years.

"There will never be a new crop of photographers unless you help grow the crop."

For information on the Missouri Photo Workshop, go to: http://www.mophotoworkshop.org/56/.

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.

Documentary Photography Workshop with Frank Van Riper

There still is space available in photography columnist Frank Van Riper's popular six-week workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this fall.
 The evening classes will begin next Thursday, October 7th and run through November 11. The course is 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. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: www.glenechopark.org

© Charles W. Harr
Hermann, Mo., wakes up. Charlie Harr waited for just the right light and just the right angle to make this telephoto shot. The turning schoolbus is a nice touch.

© Deborah Silver
"Father Bill" Debo caught in a gorgeous portrait/landscape by Deborah Silver. The priest is returning from a funeral to his church (background).

© Leah Nash
Leah Nash's picture story on a very worldly, cigarette-smoking 13-year-old girl had occasional glimpses of her as the child that she really is.

© Jodi Hilton
This wonderful study of a mother and daughter catches them in different, yet similar, positions. A great, unobtrusive get.

© Paul Rutherford
They called him The Little Trooper for his positive attitude, demonstrated here beautifully during recess fun with parachute silk. (NB: Doctors expect his hip abnormality ultimately to be cured.)

© Uwe Martin
Late night at the Sharp Corner Bar in Hermann. German photog Uwe Martin captures a flirtatious moment on the fly.

© Melody Ko
They are smart animals. Even the most hardened viewer must believe that these two hogs, huddled together, know that they are on their last ride.


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:

Cartier-Bresson: Mourning the Hawk's Eye An Appreciation

Weighing Digital's Speed Against Daunting Delays

New Tenants in the House of God

Panorama Pix, Sure – But With a Holga?

Fuji's New S20: Pro Camera Wannabe

Artful Politics: Beauty From Electoral Chaos

Vita Brevis; (Liberal) Ars Longa

Making Tricky Birthday Pix

Of Diamonds and Dugouts And Polaroid Fantasy

What I Learned in School...

Stand in Ansel's Shoes and Make the Same Pic? (Sure)

What Price Purity? What Level of Skill?

The New FZ-10: If it Ain't Broke...

Muriel Hasbun and the 'Layering of Memories'

Burnett's 4x5: Covering Politics the Hard Way

Leica's Digilux 2: The 'Analog' Digital

Bar-Hopping with Mario: Pix 'In an Easy Way'

The Available Light Wedding

Tiny Digitals: When Smaller is Better