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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Three weeks into his first assignment in Kosovo, Danish photojournalist Claus Bjorn Larsen was arrested and all of his film was confiscated.

"You could really feel the hate from the Serbian people," the 36-year-old photographer said.

The initial setback didn't discourage him, though the devastation visited upon each side in the long conflict did.

"The Serbs only liked to have their story's side [told]," Larsen went on. "I was pro-Albanian. But then I saw what the Albanians [eventually] did to the Serbs, so I ended up being neutral."

At 36, Larsen is a wiry young man with a round, open face. He exudes a kind of caring nonchalance that can typify a great war photographer. In this kind of work, cynicism is a hindrance, though skepticism helps, especially when hearing one side's one-sided version of what has happened or is about to happen next.

It may not fit the popular conception of a war correspondent, but empathy carries far more weight than a Hemingway-esque bravado. It creates a bond with your subjects that often produces trenchant, feeling quotes and sensitive, even beautiful, pictures in the middle of hell.

"Normally, children are really happy people," Larsen observed, looking at one of his prints of a desolate child, and mindful of his own little girl back home in Denmark. "But not here." In Kosovo, as in so many other war and famine zones, truth often is the first casualty, but the second casualty too often is childhood.

Larsen has been to Kosovo several times and is fortunate to work for Copenhagen's Berlingske Tidende newspaper. His mandate never was to try to cover spot news, in the manner of the wire services like the Associated Press and Reuters. Rather, his paper let him wander, without a writer in tow, and send back images that he felt were emblematic of the conflict. These images were interspersed with the paper's other Kosovo coverage.

He worked almost exclusively in black and white and, wonder of wonders, his paper not only ran his stuff prominently, they printed it full frame, even including his black frame edges.

Such respect for his work gave him spectacular display and, combined with the first-rate quality of his images, grabbed the world's attention. Last year, Claus walked off with some of international photojournalism's most prestigious awards, including the Visa D'Or from the annual Photography enclave in Perpignon, France, not to mention the World Press Photo "Photo of the Year" award for 2000.

The latter award, one of the most sought after in camera journalism, is one of which Larsen is especially proud. His photograph of a wounded Kosovar Albanian refugee, his head swathed in bandages, his eyes fixed in a thousand-mile stare, was among 44,000 entries submitted by shooters around the world

"I tried to talk to him," Claus recalled of the day he made the picture, in April of '99, "[but] he was in kind of a trance. I could see that he had very strong eyes."

"I took four or five frames, and then he just disappeared."

Given his own working methods, it is likely that Larsen himself is an equally fleeting presence.

He works only by available light, and almost always in black and white. His preferred camera is the Leica rangefinder, for its incredible optics and legendary durability. One of his favorite lenses is the 35mm f/1.4 Summilux, a pricey piece of glass that can damn near see in the dark. In the field, he most often works with only two lenses, a 24mm and a 50mm.

He is wedded to his Leica rangefinder, saying it allows him to work with both eyes open and to know immediately if he has nailed a shot (as opposed to enduring the split-second blackout we've all come to accept in SLR photography). To illustrate this, he pointed to another of his pictures, of a frantic breadline, dominated by a huge hand coming into the right of the frame.

"With the rangefinder, and with my eyes open, I could see the hand coming and knew exactly when to take the picture."

There's another thing that Larsen did not mention, but which struck me because of the intimacy of his pictures. Working with a rangefinder camera forces you to get close to your subjects. [For example the longest lens the Leica RF can take is a 135mm telephoto.] And getting up close to one's subject is a heck of a lot easier if your camera does not sound like a howitzer [the near-silent click of the Leica's shutter is legendary] and if you are not motor-driving your way through a series of flash pictures going off in your subject's face.

In fact, the more I spoke to Larsen, the more I admired his technique. A working photojournalist, he might be expected to travel the world lugging the latest in digital gear. But he says he will always use film because of the quality of image it delivers. [His favorite BxW? Kodak's great chromogenic T400CN.] In Kosovo, he tended to shoot from the early morning until around 10; then on most days from late afternoon till early evening. In between he would process his film, often having to filter the water he used to guard against impurities. Then the modern electronic world would take over. He would scan his negatives into his laptop, tweak the images in Photoshop [the equivalent of dodging and burning-in in the darkroom], and then transmit his stuff to Denmark.

In most cases, Larsen didn't see real prints of his work until he got home.

He tries hard not to look too much like a journalist, another reason he loves his Leicas. They are so small and unintimidating, he says, that people tend to forget about him.

Until they see his pictures.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Claus Bjorn Larsen

Claus Bjorn Larsen

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture
Simple (but Dramatic) Portraits
Photography's Maine Connection

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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