When going out to photograph, especially when going out to photograph a specific thing or theme, the instructor might say, take a minute before or after you trip the shutter to look at what's going on directly behind you.
It may be nothing interesting at all and you may happily resume photographing according to your original plan. But every so often you will see something you otherwise never would have noticed and be able to make a picture just as good, or perhaps even better, than the one you originally had in mind.
It's a good exercise and one that can surprise you more often than you might think.
In news and event photography, unfortunately, there often seems to be precious little time for such frivolous originality. More often than not, the person paying your fee or your salary has very specific ideas about what he or she wants or needs: a series of grip n' grins with the mayor; a well-exposed shot of the ribbon-cutting; a quick snap of the prize-winning athlete posing with a trophy or the hardy perennial the prominent politician or official speaking from a podium.
Oh, how many of these shots I have made. In the last two years alone, I've done Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Laura Bush, Alan Greenspan, Richard Perle, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Donald Rumsfeld, to name only those who come immediately to mind.
And not one of those pictures is one for which I'd care to be remembered: sharp, well-exposed and boring as hell.
Given the luxury of time most good news shooters try to come up with something novel, but only after they've gotten the more mundane "money shot" in the can. But that can be risky, too. Photographers assigned to shoot the podium or head table say at a political convention or an official dinner generally have to stick with it, especially if there are other shooters from the same organization available to do other stuff at other locations in the room. What would happen, for example, if the President were to: A. suddenly put his hands to his ears and make a funny face at the audience (as Ronald Reagan did at a White House News Photographers Association dinner) or B. collapse puking into the lap of his host (as a flu-hobbled George H.W. Bush did during a state dinner in Tokyo in 1992.)?
In other words, it's always risky to stray from the assigned task and miss the picture of the day.
But, man, those times when you do take the risk, and it pays off bigtime with a world-class image, are sweet indeed. And those are the stories you tell the grandkids.
Or a fellow newsie.
Tom Hoy, a retired newspaper photographer and ex-Marine has a couple of stories like that and I have to admit, when we sat around my dining room table recently, sipping coffee and playing "journalism geography," the time flew.
Tom joined the old Washington Star in 1953 at age 17. It was a 14-year career that saw him cover a lot of the nation's triumph and tragedy. He made a beautiful, poignant image of a shrouded Jacqueline Kennedy hugging her children at their father's gravesite choosing to go tight rather than do what everyone else did go wide to include the eternal flame marking the President's resting place.
At a happier time he nailed a quick backlit shot of JFK and Mercury astronaut John H. Glenn, Jr. during Glenn's triumphant return to Washington after his historic orbital mission. The shot, showing the men in profile, inevitably was titled "Profiles in Courage."
But perhaps the biggest payoff Tom ever got for taking a risk when taking a picture was a year into Kennedy's presidency when the young president spoke at a gala marking his first year in office.
It was an evening event at the old DC National Guard Armory, Tom recalled, and stars like Carol Channing and Frank Sinatra were the big-ticket entertainment.
Early in the evening, the press had been stationed in seats above and just behind the stage, to get a good vantage point of the room. But the understanding was that just before the President arrived to speak, everyone would rush to the press area in front of and below the podium. The writers would be able to see and hear everything; the shooters would be able to photograph the President dramatically lit by the spotlights aimed at the podium.
But something about the way all the spotlights sliced through the darkness of the huge hall struck Tom. "I took a big risk," he recalled, and stayed put when word came that the President was entering the building.
In those pre-terrorism and let's not forget, pre-assassination days, Tom's presence behind the President was not viewed as a security threat. But that didn't mean he'd be able to linger. And the President only was scheduled to speak for a few minutes.
"Either it was going to work or it wasn't" Tom said. There would be no middle ground. The shot was going to be great or terrible, in which case he'd have to face his editors empty-handed, which is never a good idea when you are drawing a paycheck.
"There could have been only one light (on Kennedy) or maybe two," Tom remembered. But this time, the photo gods smiled on the young photographer. All six powerful spots shone on JFK in perfect symmetry, creating a dramatic pattern. Waiting to make his one shot, Tom didn't press the shutter release until Kennedy turned slightly to his right and gestured. The movement, the body language, all shouted JFK even the spotlights acted as a rimlight to accentuate the President's familiar full head of hair. Though taken from behind, there could be no doubt who was the subject of this great photograph.
Back at the Star, Hoy's editors had no trouble selecting the best image. There only was one. That's all Tom was able to make. On his negative strip, the preceding shot is of a group of dancers on the stage; the very next shot after the one of the President is of an empty podium as the President is leaving.
Shortly after the photograph was published, the White House expressed delight with the image. One of Tom's prized possessions is a framed blowup of his photo, personally inscribed with thanks and signed by Jack Kennedy.
Tom Hoy's from-behind photograph of JFK inevitably calls to mind a shot of similar composition by the late great George Tames of the New York Times. George's shot, titled "The Loneliest Job in the World," arguably is the most famous image Tames ever made. It shows JFK in the White House, standing stoop-shouldered in front of a long table, in the days after his inauguration in 1961. From behind, it looks as if he is carrying the weight of the world. But in fact, as George always acknowledged, Kennedy who had a bad back simply was reading the newspapers standing up, as he often preferred to do.
Tom recalled with a laugh that after his own shot was published, he and Tames often would kid each other about who had the best JFK-from-behind shot.
Since I know Tom and since I regarded George as a dear friend let's call it a draw. Either shot illustrates what happens when great photographers trust their instincts.
You should too.
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.