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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Stephen King, Photography Teacher

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Though he probably didn't set out to do it, author Stephen King has written an insightful, plainspoken and thoroughly enjoyable book on photography.

Of course, King's latest book, On Writing, is about the craft of setting words to paper, as well as a deftly written autobiography describing his Maine boyhood, his enduring marriage to fellow novelist, the former Tabitha Spruce, his successful battle with alcohol and drugs, and of course, his recovery from the 1999 car accident that nearly killed him.

But as someone who has met King and photographed him, and who has spoken with him a number of times about his craft, I finished his book thinking that a lot of what King said about being a good writer can apply to being a good photographer. I respect King greatly for his devotion to what he does best-telling stories that can grip you by the throat, move you, scare you, make you laugh out loud, and then rob you of a night's sleep. And that devotion, I think, can be translated to other art forms.

"This is a short book because most books about writing are filled with bullshit," King says in one of his three forewords. [Don't ask.] "Fiction writers, present company included, don't understand very much about what they do – not why it works when it's good, not why it doesn't when it's bad. I figured the shorter the book, the less the bullshit...."

But in fact King does understand much more than he initially lets on. He understands-and beats the reader over the head with the notion – that devotion to process is what informs craft. And that craft becomes art only after long, hard work.

Hard work is enjoyable work if you love what you do, especially if you do it well. In photography, does that mean you will love taking pictures only after you've produced gallery – quality work? Of course not. You started to love making photographs after you saw the first magical results from your Brownie. Something in you resonated over the process of picture-taking the same way that riding a horse for the first time, or hitting a ball, or listening to music resonated with other people with different joys and different talents.

And you kept on doing it.

"Talent," says King, "renders the whole idea of rehearsal meaningless; when you find something at which you are talented, you do it (whatever it is) until your fingers bleed or your eyes are ready to fall out of your head. Even when no one is listening (or reading or watching), every outing is a bravura performance because you as the creator are happy. Perhaps even ecstatic."

Part of King's prescription for fledgling writers – those happy souls who view being alone with a blank tablet and pen as a joy not a punishment – is to read and read voraciously because "reading is the creative center of a writer's life." I would say here that looking at, studying and absorbing good photography serves the same purpose for a beginning photographer. That is because learning the components of a good image-composition, lighting, gesture – and seeing those elements used differently over and over by different masters, makes it easier for a person to achieve the same end on his or her own over time. And there simply is no alternative to this, no shortcut.

"If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but 'didn't have the time to read,' I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner," King observes. "Can I be blunt on this? If you don't have time to read [insert: study photographs], you don't have the time (or the tools) to write [insert: to photograph]. Simple as that."

It is instructive to see that nowhere in his book does King have anything to say about his "equipment." From my own conversations with him I know that he writes on everything from a computer to the back of napkins. Keep this in mind the next time you are tempted to think that your creative output would be doubled if you just spent the rent money on a better camera. Better you should spend a fraction of that total on a few more photography books so you can study the images therein to better use the camera you already have.

But what about developing a personal style? In photography, this often is called "a personal vision." Once again, except in very rare cases, style/personal vision is developed with time and effort. It is almost never inborn.

The new writer, King says, may find him or herself adopting a style that seems particularly exciting, "and there's nothing wrong with that."

"When I read Ray Bradbury as a kid, I wrote like Ray Bradbury – everything green and wondrous and seen through a lens smeared with the grease of nostalgia. When I read James M. Cain, everything I wrote came out clipped and stripped and hard-boiled. When I read Lovecraft, my prose became luxurious and Byzantine...."

Blending these styles together, into what even King admitted was sometimes "a hilarious stew," is all part of developing one's own style. In my own career, shooting color, I can distinctly remember slavishly aping my heroes: Ernst Haas and Pete Turner. I make absolutely no apology for all of the photos I made of walls with peeling paint or of countless images, both color and bxw, of artfully abstract [read: unrecognizable] auto parts.

It's all part of the process.

Finally, there is the issue of frequency. In my view, a photographer is someone who photographs. Not someone who thinks about photographing, or who wants to photograph, but someone who does it, preferably day in and day out.

"The truth," says Stephen King, "is that when I'm writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not.... And when I'm not working at all, during those periods of full stop I usually feel at loose ends with myself and have trouble sleeping. For me, not working is the real work. When I'm writing, it's all the playground, and the worst three hours I ever spent there were still pretty damn good."

As a photographer (who also happens to be a writer), I sure can relate. So can you, I'll bet.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Pulitzer Pictures: Capturing the Moment

Extending the Holidays

Sheila Metzner's Platinum New York

Point N' Shoots Revisted

Holiday Gift Books

Photographing Castro's Cuba-Fascination and Frustration

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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