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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Remember when air travel was an adventure, not a punishment?

You look back to newspaper morgue photos of people flying across the ocean in those gorgeous and roomy Pan American Clippers and what strikes you - aside from all the smiles - is that people dressed for air travel. It was an occasion. Now, however, if you're like me, you wear clothes that are one step above sweats, the better to cope with the crummy service, cramped seating, lousy food, long lines to the toilet and assorted other indignities that attend the average non-high-roller's venture into the wild blue yonder.

And if you travel out of major American airports - like say Dulles International on the east coast or San Diego Airport on the left coast - things have just gotten worse, especially if you are a traveling photographer.

As I first reported last fall and as recent events have borne out, you and I are being plagued by a double whammy that seriously threatens our ability to work, or simply to take pictures we like. The double whammy consists first of the new high-powered, film-destroying scanners for checked luggage, combined with increasingly restrictive policies for carry-on luggage, unveiled in the Washington area with a vengeance just a few weeks ago.

The most recent of these restrictive carry-on policies was instituted last April 15 at Dulles: a blanket prohibition against any carry-on luggage that was larger than a puny 9" by 14" by 22". The new carry-on rules were designed to thwart travelers who try to walk on a plane with what amount to trunks on wheels. But these new rules are, I think, counterproductive, if not downright silly. Recently, Continental Airlines sued Delta Air Lines to force its competitor to stop using a plastic baggage-sizing template at security checkpoints shared by the carriers at San Diego International airport. Continental, whose rules were not as restrictive as Delta's, complained that the new restrictions created traffic jams and other inconveniences. "Continental customers shouldn't be penalized by Delta's imposition of its unfriendly baggage polices," said a Continental spokesman.

And this was precisely the argument Continental made in a separate federal antitrust lawsuit last April against United Airlines and the Airline Management Council at Dulles.

It should be noted that Continental's beef was purely economic. The carrier had just spent millions to retrofit its fleet with humongous overhead storage bins, the better to allow its frequent business fliers - the most lucrative segment of the flying public to airlines -- to indulge their desire never to have to check a bag. Anyone who has spent time as I have watching people trying not to brain fellow passengers as they wrestle bags into the overhead can view Continental's position with decidedly mixed emotions.

In fact, I wouldn't have any beef at all with stricter carry-on requirements were it not for the maddening specter of film-destroying CTX security scanning.

CTX scanning - similar to CAT scans on humans - is better able than conventional X-ray to detect explosives and weapons in checked baggage: an admirable goal. But it also fries unexposed and undeveloped film. I have seen the damage take the form of fogging literally blanketing an image or streaking that runs all across the image area. Either way, the photograph is destroyed. Kodak's Professional Photography division issued this bulletin recently to its subscribers: "This [CTX-5000] unit performs two types of scans. The first is a general sweep, which is harmless to film. The second is a focused, high-energy scan targeted at any suspicious-looking items identified by the system in the initial sweep. If this second scan happens to strike unprocessed film, it will be ruined."

The new scanners are being deployed at airports around the world and photographers should know that if they put film into checked luggage they do so at their peril. The obvious remedy is to put film in carry-on luggage since, happily, the X-ray machines for this luggage have been shown-so far, anyway--to be harmless to film, even at high ISOs.

But here's where the double whammy comes in. New restrictions on carry-on luggage adopted by many U.S. airlines severely limit the traveling photographer's ability to carry both film and equipment, leaving the photographer with the uncomfortable option of checking valuable and fragile cameras as luggage. This, frankly, is something I simply will not do. On commercial jobs, I happily check through tripods, light stands and strobes, but never-never-my Nikons, Leicas or Hasselblads.

The other day, NBC News reported that more than 6,500 pieces of luggage are lost or delayed every day by U.S. airlines. And that assumes all such incidents are innocent. Painful though it may be to say, the CTX imprint of a valuable and easily hockable camera might prove an impossible temptation to a larcenous baggage handler working out of sight of the general public. I don't think it was coincidence, for example, that when I led a photo tour of Venice a few years ago, the only item of value missing from the luggage of one of my companions was a brand new camcorder, packed in among his family's clothing.

So what can you do? For now the only thing is to be prepared. Last month my new Tamrac Rolling Strong Box (pictured here next to the larger version I used to carry on) managed to squeeze through the luggage template at Dulles (also pictured). When Judy and I return to Venice this winter, to finish work on our next book, I intend to jam as much film and as many cameras as I can into this bag and check through everything else.

I also intend to buy film on site. In third world countries this might be a problem, but in Western Europe even professional film is widely available. I'm planning, for example, to go back to the Venetian photo shop I visited in '98 and have my pal Daniele order bricks of T400CN for me once I arrive. Since his pro shop is a good one and souped film for me the last time, I even might have him develop and contact our work, since airport X-ray has no effect on film once it is processed.

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:

Big Changes Likely for Leica
When Newer is Better
Street-Smart Guide To Avoiding Camera Thievery
Revisiting a Classic: The Legendary Leica M6
Surge Protection-or Practicing Safe Pix
The Plastic Nikon

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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