Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Hail Mary – and Other Divine Photo Tricks

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In football, it's called a Hail Mary Pass. It's a desperation play when you're behind, and the only thing you have going for you is chutzpah, hope and prayer. The clock is winding down – in fact there's only enough time on the clock for one play. All the receivers go deep; the quarterback hurls the ball toward the end zone and hopes – or prays – that one of them somehow will catch the thing.

When it works, it's beautiful. Ask Roger Staubach, who in 1975 ruined the Super Bowl hopes of the Minnesota Vikings with a Hail Mary touchdown pass to Drew Pearson to give the Dallas Cowboys the NFC division title. Staubach didn't even see the catch; he was knocked flat on his butt as soon as he let it go.

There can be an element of desperation in the photographic equivalent of the Hail Mary Pass – the Hail Mary Shot. That's when the photographer holds the camera high over his or her head, sometimes to "see" over the heads and shoulders of a crowd, sometimes just for the hell of it, in hopes that the subject of the picture is, in fact, in the frame and recorded on film or pixels. But, unlike the Hail Mary Pass, the circumstances of this kind of photography don't have to be desperate. In fact they can be just the opposite.

Hail Mary photography – and some other unconventional techniques – are as much about looseness and creativity as they are about trying desperately to make a picture. What they really are about is being comfortable enough with your instincts as well as with your equipment, to give chance and, yes, luck a way to impact your photography.

For me the best Hail Mary shot I ever made [so far, anyway] was the one shown here, during Carnevale, 1998, in Venice. It was a chilly, overcast and very crowded day in Piazza San Marco when Judy and I saw this couple posing mute before a horde of people. That's part of the drill: elaborately done up folks parade around the Piazza and strike silent poses in hopes of attracting the attention of camera-toting tourists.

That's fine as far as it goes, but my wife and I quickly tired of taking pictures of people in carnival masks. A little of that goes a real long way, we thought, though someone must like this stuff, given the large number of color photography books that we have seen showing people in carnival costume.

Besides, we both were working in black and white. But this couple was different. Both the man and woman were dressed totally in white, making it a natural for us. Since photographing the dead expression of a masked face didn't really appeal to me – and since I loved the voluptuous folds of the woman's dress – I quickly decided to shoot from behind and above. First I focused on the couple, then, without moving, quickly lifted my Mamiya 6 up over my head and tilted it slightly downward. It was only later, when printing the photograph, that I realized the added "gift" I had gotten in this image. The three white-masked faces to the right side of the crowd make a wonderful counterbalance to the two white figures in the foreground. Because I was shooting over my head, I was totally unaware of them when I made the picture.

Another technique for unusual pictures is in fact the opposite of the Hail Mary – but damned if I can think of a clever name for it that wouldn't offend someone. [I should note that when I was researching the origins of the Hail Mary football pass – you didn't think I recalled that Roger Staubach stuff off the top of my head, did you? – I found at least one person who found the term "Hail Mary Pass" sacrilegious.]

Let's just call it shooting from below. And it's just as chancy because, again, you have no way of knowing what is in your viewfinder.

But so what?

This second picture, made during another trip to Venice, fairly typifies for me the venerable Venetian custom of the mid-morning "ombra," or shadow. It's a shot of wine – usually a young, fairly astringent white – gulped down fairly quickly at a wine bar or trattoria. This practice actually goes on all day, giving rise to what one Venetian friend calls a perpetual "Venetian buzz" enjoyed by many locals. On this morning (you can see from the clock that it's barely a quarter to 11) a dapper older gentleman came in for his shot and was slugging it down when I made the picture. As it happened Judy and I were sitting at a table having coffee and hot chocolate so I already was in a lower position. I also wanted to shoot from below to capture some of the interesting curved ceiling. This time, I prefocused my Leica M6 and, with the camera in the palm of my hand, pressed the shutter release with my thumb. [Note: obviously with an autofocus camera, I would not even have had to prefocuis.]

Finally, there's shooting straight up, as if you were on the ground. You've seen this kind of picture made in the canyons of Manhattan, with tall buildings made to loom grandly or ominously. But one of my own favorite "up-shots" was not an architectural photograph but a wedding picture.

The wedding couple was getting married in the groom's mother's grand apartment on Connecticut Avenue in Washington. When Judy and I arrived, one of the many gorgeous things in this place was a stunning glass Italian chandelier in the dining room. Simply for grins, I stuck my digital Fuji FinePix S2 directly under the chandelier and shot straight up by available light, having no idea what I was going to get.

Now that's a wedding picture!

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
The best Hail Mary shot of my life – so far, anyway. I made this one five years ago in Venice during Carnevale, first focusing normally, then holding my Mamiya 6 straight above my head and tilted slightly down. It was not until I was in the darkroom that I saw the three enigmatic white-masked figures on the right, figures that clearly help make the picture work.

© Frank Van Riper
What do you call the opposite of a Hail Mary? Beats me, but the results can be just as satisfying, as when I shot this fellow from below while he was having a late morning shot of white wine at a Venice bar. I liked the odd angle because I wanted to show the unusual curves of the ceiling light fixture. And the camera was nowhere near my eye.

© Frank Van Riper
I love it when experiments work. At a recent wedding, I admired this elaborate Italian chandelier, so I put the camera in the palm of my hand and simply shot up to see what I could get. Now that's a wedding picture.


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:

Barbara Southworth's Panoramic Poetry

The Color Cure

Everyone Outta the Pool – You Too, Horenstein

Leica MP: Retro Coup And Marketing Ploy?

Wedding Warriors

Low & Slow: Cameron's Aerial Magic Show