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A Cautiously Glorious 4th

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I admit, I am writing this in advance with my fingers crossed.

This piece coincides with July 4th, or annual celebration of country, of freedom and, frankly, of self. It is a reflection of our jagged, tormented times that I hope the sun sets on this day without some pathetic figure blowing him or herself up (especially on our shores) in envious protest of what we as a people stand for.

We have much to answer for in this troubled world – yet much to be proud of as well. Too often, in the hand-wringing over our recently completed, and very necessary, confrontation with evil in Iraq, the emphasis has been on what we have not accomplished, not on the huge amount that we have.

But that is beside the point of celebrating today, and so I will.

As you read this, my wife Judy and I are in Maine, for our annual, tranquil all-summer sojourn Down East. [Quiz: why's it called Down East? It's an old nautical term referring to sailing "downwind toward the east" – or up the coast to where we are.]

We built a house in Lubec, the easternmost point in the US, more than a decade ago and this year will celebrate the new addition to our kitchen and the continued growth and good health of Judy's spectacular garden. The bulking up of our old railroad style kitchen – pushing out the front of the house and two side walls – was accomplished only after it was determined that the new construction would not affect my pride and joy: the stone grill in the front garden that my stepsons and I labored to build just a few years ago.

In the past, Judy and I would arrive in Lubec by mid-July, having missed the July 4th festivities there and in the other small towns that dot Maine's glorious Down East coast. But years ago, when I was photographing for my book Down East Maine/ A World Apart, I knew I had to shoot a Small Town Fourth, complete with fireworks, and so we ventured up early one year so I could town-hop with my Hasselblad to photograph our neighbors marking the day.

Or so I had planned. The year we arrived, so did a lot of rain (sound familiar?) Lubec, our town, postponed its festivities 24 hours – only to be rained out a second time on the 5th. Happily, the quaint coastal town of Cutler, about 45 minutes away, held off its doings until the 6th and I was able to photograph, not only the wonderfully low-key morning parade through the town's main street (grand-marshal'd by Neil Corbett, then a septuagenarian lobsterman), but also the spectacular fireworks display that went off over Cutler harbor that night. In my book, the chapter featuring these pictures is entitled "Small Town Forth," though it was, in fact "Small Town Sixth."

Despite that soggy beginning, this Independence Day adventure convinced us to come up here earlier and we have made it to Maine almost every year in time for the Fourth. Last year, not only was the weather better, I even made it onto the front page of the Downeast Coastal Press with my photographs.

Covering any public event in Down East Maine is so different from covering Washington. The parade last year down Lubec's Water Street obviously was not as large as the Rose Parade in Pasadena or Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade in Manhattan and that meant nobody was there to throw his or her weight around to tell you where you could or could not photograph.

[I'm reminded of another event I covered for my book: the 1992 rededication of the international bridge linking Lubec, Me., with Campobello, N.B., where FDR fondly spent so much time as a young man. FDR's grandson Christopher was there to represent the family, but the star was Edmund S. Muskie, former Maine governor, senator and US Secretary of State. I had covered him in Washington, flown on his vice-presidential campaign plane in 1968 and years later accompanied him and ex-President Carter to Wiesbaden to greet the returning US hostages from Iran. But on this day in Maine, the event was so low-key and informal that I was able, not only to cut up old touches with Muskie, but to say hi to his wife Jane as well, all before the first ribbon was cut.]

That time with Muskie I worked with a Hasselblad Superwide. This time, on Lubec's tiny Water Street, I worked with my point and shoot Canon PowerShot G1, set mostly on program. I doubt I used fill-flash much, if at all. Lubec's main drag is maybe three or four blocks long, so I pretty much stayed put as the frankly hilarious, home-made floats passed by. There were folks from the local nursing home decked in red white and blue waving to the crowd from a bunting-decked flatbed. There were kids in home-made costumes depicting historical tableaux of sometimes questionable accuracy. There were drum majorettes twirling batons including one tiny one whose helmet kept falling over her eyes. And there was every emergency vehicle in the town blasting horns and sirens as volunteers showered the crowd with plastic necklaces and hard candy.

In the past, the local papers often would have had to rush their film to places like the Rite-Aid drugstore in Machias before the pix could see print. But even in Down East Maine – where time really does seem to go slower – digital has had an impact.

In my case, once I determined from the Coastal Press that I had a little time, I went home, edited my take on my laptop, then downloaded all onto a CD, which I later delivered to Fred and Nancy Hastings, the co-editors and publishers of the newspaper.

I've had my share of front-page bylines and big picture spreads during three decades in the news business. But there was something sweet about seeing my work on the frontpage of my "local" paper in Maine to mark July 4th, even if Judy and I only live up there two months of the year.

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
Local kids decked out for the summer holiday make for a great July Fourth shot near Lubec, Maine's imposing memorial for those who fought in the Civil War.

©Frank Van Riper
This is Maine, remember, where blueberries vie with lobster for the title of most ubiquitous food. This chunky guy raises his hand in triumph during a blueberry pie-eating contest.

©Frank Van Riper
A nice composition of color and shapes: a Lubec home in which the owners like to show off Old Glory large and proud.


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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