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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Photo Improv

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Cellist Peter Lewy entered the hall to great applause and prepared to seat himself behind his beloved, battered instrument.

"You're going to hear a piece for the first time tonight..." he told his audience, as eyebrows rose in anticipation.

Renowned as a composer and teacher besides being a concert musician, Lewy easily might have brought to his audience this evening in Maine a piece of music he just had written, music that would be unveiled tonight and played for years to come.

"And after tonight," Peter told the crowd, "you'll never hear it again."

Puzzled looks; more raised eyebrows.

"It's an improvisation."

Listening in the audience that night, in my adoptive town of Lubec, Maine, I marveled at how Peter then produced music that not only was beautiful to listen to, but beautiful to watch. He played with such confidence and verve that I could not help but wonder if this "improvisation" actually had been written down beforehand and memorized. But I knew Peter and knew he wouldn't do that.

Later that night, at a reception for him, I asked Peter the inevitable question a non-musician like me would ask:

"How the hell did you do that?"

Peter laughed and went through a number of things that a well-prepared musician-albeit one who likes to live on the edge-keeps in mind during an improvised performance. Certain musical phrases, for example that might mix well together. Various playing techniques that a performer might want to use. For a cellist, as well perhaps for other string players, these techniques can include things like "arpeggianation"-when and where to insert dramatic arpeggios.

But all that is secondary to the most important thing, Peter said.

"The most important thing," he declared, "is knowing where I want to start."

It's my nature to think of new things in terms of what I'm familiar with. And hearing Peter describe how he improvises called to mind what I did-and have now begun to do again-during my own kind of improvising: walking the streets looking for pictures, especially in Venice, the subject of our next book.

Street photography, whether by Garry Winogrand, Cartier-Bresson, or by you or me, is about letting things happen: about being prepared to photograph whatever happens in front of us that seems to have the elements of a good picture. Taken no further, this concept likens the photographer to a kind of photo panther, whose reflexes and eye can "improvise" a good shot in the fraction of a shutter.

That's fine as far as it goes and it doubtless is true. Certainly Cartier-Bresson built his reputation as a photojournalist on his ability to capture "the decisive moment."

But I think Peter Lewy's comments add an important element to this creative equation.

Knowing where to start may remove some of the mystery and magic from improvisational performance or action. In fact for some it may demolish the whole concept. ("Ah, he knew what he was gonna do all along.") But in fact "knowing where I want to start" is simply a way of focusing one's talents in a particular way for a particular kind of work and then letting the work happen, through the seemingly magical combination of inspiration and muscle memory that occurs only after years of practice in a particular field. In Peter's case on that evening in Maine, he chose to improvise a piece that had the rhythms, shadings-and arpeggios-of classical music. At other times he might choose to do a solo cello improv in jazz.

Had he not concentrated enough beforehand to know where he wanted to start, I suspect Peter would have run the risk of his performance becoming a discordant mélange of differing sounds and styles.

In photography, knowing where to begin can be even more important since we often need to choose from among an abundance of specialized "instruments" before we even walk out the door.

That is to say: Peter Lewy is a cellist. He plays the cello. Heading to a concert, he walks out the door with...a cello. End of story.

I am a photographer. On any given day I can work with a 35mm Leica or Nikon; with a medium format Mamiya or Hasselblad; a 4x5 view camera, a plastic Holga or a digital Canon PowerShot. (And let's not forget the myriad of lens choices that goes with each of the conventional cameras, save the Holga, as well as a plethora of different films in both color and bxw.)

In order for me to make the best use of my equipment, even on a day when I just want to do my own personal pictures, letting the muse bite me on the butt as he or she pleases, I have to choose what gear I'm going to take with me, lest I become so burdened with equipment that I say "the hell with this; let's eat" barely a hour or so into the day.

To make the point even clearer, consider the late Ansel Adams heading out the door to his battered station wagon full of view camera gear-maybe a 4x5 as well as a 5x7 camera, a bulky wooden tripod, a ton of film holders, lenses, changing bag, focusing cloth, filters, meters, etc. etc.

Then, all of a sudden, let's say we transported Ansel from Yosemite to the Bronx and told him to spend the day shooting there. I'm pretty sure even he would feel intimidated by not having the right equipment to use for what clearly would be a day of journalistic street photography. [And to those of you who want to throw Alfred Stieglitz's or Berenice Abbott's wonderful urban landscapes up to me and say Ansel could have done the same under the fantastic circumstances I've outlined, I simply reply...get your own column; I'm making a point.]

I venture to say that photographers known for their "improvisational"photography-Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Elliott Erwitt, Helen Leavitt, Robert Frank, to name only a few-had at least some idea of what, or as important, how they wanted to shoot at the start of each workday.

For example: I am in Paris. I will wander the left bank at dawn and see what happens.

Or: I am going to the hottest club in Berlin. I will take color film, a tiny flash and my Leica and shoot direct flash pix for edgy, frenzied portraits.

Or: I'm in Manhattan at rush hour. I'll work available light trying to document the madness on Tri-X, then switch to Delta 3200 or T-Max 3200 as the sun goes down to make some cool, grainy impressionistic images.

The point I'm making is that there has to be at least some preliminary guiding thought or concept to help you make the best use of your shooting time.

And I am not saying that concept has to be unified or limited to one thing.

For example, though some of Judy's and my work in Venice these past few years has been architectural, involving lots of advance planning and long, tripod-mounted nighttime exposures with occasional "painting" by strobelight, most of our shooting has been handheld and by available light–traditional "improvisational" street photography. But because our time in Venice is limited, I often will work in at least two formats every day, carrying with me a 35mm Leica M6 as well as a medium format Mamiya 6. This allows me to use the Leica to be a fly-on-the-wall, while the Mamiya lets me grab the occasional architectural shot. With both cameras I have ample supplies of 400-speed Kodak T400CN as well as Ilford's Delta 3200, so I can shoot in both formats from dawn to dusk.

And though generally I haven't the faintest idea what I'll shoot each day in this most beautiful city in the world, at least with the gear I've chosen, like Peter Lewy, I know "where I want to start."

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
Cellist Peter Lewy during a concert performance at the SummerKeys music workshop in Lubec, Maine. Here Peter is working from a musical score, accompanied on the piano by workshop founder Bruce Potterton. But Lewy is equally adept at winging it with cello improv, and the same technique may be used in photography.


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

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