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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

What I Learned in School...

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It had been a while since I taught a photography workshop, and I wasn't sure how I would take to it.

I shouldn't have worried; my just-ended six-week class in documentary photography and darkroom printing was a blast. And I'm hooked – again.

Count me in as yet another Photoworks fan. I've already agreed to teach more classes there, as much for what I get out of the experience as for what I'm able to impart to my students.

My first exposure to Photoworks, the program of workshops, classes and open darkroom at venerable Glen Echo Park in Glen Echo, Maryland, was more than 20 years ago, back when I was a Washington political writer for the New York Daily News. I was in my transition phase – going from newspaper reporter to freelance photographer – and had just finished writing the biography of John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, US senator, and (at the time) presidential candidate. With the book done, I needed a top-notch author picture for the book jacket and had the great good fortune of knowing a terrific shooter – my soon-to-be-wife Judy – who could do the job for nothing. (Ain't love grand?)

The only problem was that Judy had moved into my darkroom-less apartment in Bethesda by that time, having given up the darkroom in her rented one bedroom apartment in Cleveland Park, DC. [One of the things that immediately attracted me to Judy was that she had her priorities straight: she turned her apartment bedroom into a permanent darkroom, and slept on a platform bed/sofa in the living room.]

Needing a quick place to print the author pic, and not trusting the mostly mediocre commercial labs that were around then, we gravitated to Photoworks' open darkroom, one of the few such facilities in the DC metro area. What the facility lacked in charm it made up for in practicality, and the printing session produced just what we needed. But the digs were anything but elegant. In fact, back then the entire Photoworks facility of studios, darkroom and exhibit space was shoehorned into a corner of Glen Echo Park – a once-proud, but at the time crumbling, throwback to a time when, as an amusement park dating back to the 1920s, it had attracted hordes of DC-area residents who would crowd onto the trolley (yes, trolley) to take advantage of the park's many attractions, including a world-class carousel. [The facility finally closed as an amusement park in 1968.]

Back in the 80s I also had taken several workshops at Glen Echo and had been pleasantly surprised to find that, rough though the surroundings may have been then, the classes themselves compared very favorably to the master classes I was devouring at the Maine Photographic Workshops in Rockport, Maine. I had concentrated on the mysteries of studio and location lighting back then and found in DC's own Tom Wolff, for example, a terrific and open teacher – not to mention a hell of a talent.

The experience stayed with me but – except for the occasional Photoworks fundraising auction to which Judy and I contributed prints – I lost touch both with the facility and the people in it.

The only good result of this was that I was totally unprepared for the stunning reincarnation of Photoworks that awaited me after I agreed to teach a documentary photography workshop there at the suggestion of program director, teacher (and photographer) Karen Keating. The new computer lab, the spacious new community darkroom, the gorgeous exhibition space and conference room – all were contained in what only can be called Glen Echo Park Reborn.

Credit the National Parks Service, which oversees Glen Echo's Creative Education Program and surrounding grounds – and Montgomery County, Maryland, which is now working with the community to make the facility once again a site for classes, entertainment and recreation – with turning Glen Echo around, and also with keeping it from becoming a developer's fevered dream. But for Photoworks itself, the tireless fundraising of Karen Keating and others has helped turn what had been a very good photo resource into a potentially great one.

It was against this backdrop that I taught my first class at Glen Echo this winter: six weeks, every Thursday evening, from 7-10:30.

I learned a number of things from my delightfully diverse group of students. [I deliberately limited the class size to ten to keep things more personal – which was a good call, I think.]

I learned for example that nobody in my group cared about getting his or her hands wet. These were folks of various ages and interests who, though often familiar with digital – even to the point of being expert in it – loved being in the darkroom, just as I do. That may not seem like a big thing, but as a photography writer who is bombarded almost daily with the latest digital camera or computer-operated gizmo to review or at least mention in print, it was reassuring to see that, even within this admittedly small universe, there still existed the belief that, yes, there is something great, magical, timeless and good about producing photographic prints one at a time by hand, in the darkroom, on real, emulsion-coated paper.

Another thing I learned was that my students were fearless.

This being a class in documentary photography, I assigned everyone to make pictures, or a portrait, of someone they did not know, by engaging the subject and not merely by capturing an image surreptitiously. Everyone did fine – and confirmed my long-held belief that most people, when approached directly and politely, will be happy to pose, and thereby help you "make a photograph" rather than merely "take a picture." This even included the folks who peopled the all-night diner that Roxanne, my youngest student, approached. (Don't know if I would have been so fearless – and I grew up in the Bronx. But Roxanne sailed through this with aplomb.)

Of course, there were exceptions, though in this particular case Alan Greenspan was clueless throughout. My student Dave, who handles PR for the Credit Union National Association and produces the group's publications, figured he could get a twofer when the Fed chairman spoke to a CUNA gathering at a local hotel. Armed with his Olympus digicam, Dave assumed he could both do his homework and get a nice pic for the newsletter as Greenspan was escorted into the meeting by CUNA president and former congressman Dan Mica.

Dave did make a nice pic of Greenspan and Mica in private conversation shortly before Greenspan spoke, but – well, let him tell it, as Greenspan stood in the dark, waiting to be introduced:

"I recompose my picture and hold the shutter button halfway down to allow plenty of time for the mechanics of the camera to focus. However, in low-light focusing situations, my camera illuminates the subject with a narrow beam of laser light. Looking through the viewfinder, I suddenly realize the horror of a bright red dot centered on the back of the head of the most revered man in all the financial world!

"And the security man notices, too.

"I made no more candid photographs of Mr. Alan Greenspan that day."

The projects my students pursued (it could be a new one or an existing one) were as diverse as they were. Franc made some dynamite shots of the people who haunt flea markets looking for old vinyl records. Some of these folks were pretty close-mouthed, not wanting to give away the location of their favorite spots, but Franc got great stuff anyway. Michael, a superb printer as well as photographer, showed some wonderful, newly printed images he had made at a Palestinian refugee camp. Chris, a young newspaper shooter, wowed us with the stuff he made on assignment. And Scott pursued a wonderful project at his church, documenting in available light the exultation and joyful noise of weekly services.

The six-weeks flew – at least for me, and, I think, for my class.

I got back from these enthusiastic photographers much more than I gave – and I couldn't wait for each Thursday evening.

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
Wouldn't you be drawn to this place? Once on the verge of ruin, Glen Echo Park is being transformed into a marvelous teaching, entertainment and recreation center, offering everything from ballroom dancing (at the refurbished Spanish Ballroom), to great puppet shows for kids (at the newly expanded Puppet Co.) to photography courses (at the renovated Photoworks).

©David Klavitter
Documentary photography is recording one's world with a camera. Here my student Dave captures Fed chairman Alan Greenspan in conversation with former Rep. Dan Mica, before Greenspan's address to a financial convention.

Laptop image ©Franc Rosario
Franc, using his laptop to preview photos he will print, shows off an image documenting collectors of old vinyl records. "Everybody carries around one of these rinky-dink little record players," Franc says, to check out disks before they buy.

©Frank Van Riper
Here's our happy crew on the last day. I'm a sucker for class pictures and had to set up a camera on a tripod. Note the elegant exhibition space behind us.


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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