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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography


By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

As a native New Yorker who all but grew up on the world's greatest subway system, I was predictably skeptical of Washington D.C.'s brand – new Metro when it opened for business some 20 years ago. ["D.C.'s Toy Train" was how I described it in a feature for the NY Daily News.]

But the gleaming new cars, the easy to navigate pathways – not to mention the dramatic vaulted ceilings – quickly made a believer of me, even if the lack of bathrooms and the silly rules against eating in the station gave this subway a sterility one doesn't find, say, in the Paris Metro or on the "T" in Boston.

But one thing D.C.'s Metro does share with other great subways – Moscow's for example – is an appreciation of art and a willingness to display it. Just the other day, for example, Judy and I made a special trip to the Chinatown station to view the huge and beautiful work of sculptor Foon Sham that hangs over the station's subterranean main platform.

It was a similar monumental work by artist Connie Fleres that prompted one of my most enjoyable portrait shots - and provided an object lesson in how to combine different light sources for dramatic effect.

Connie's large wall sculpture, entitled "Yellow Line," featured a brilliant band of yellow neon against a high-tech grid pattern and formed a striking accent to the platform level of the Gallery Place Metro stop.

At the time, Connie and I were fellow artists at D.C.'s Touchstone Gallery, where I had begun a personal project of photographing my fellow artists in their environments. Seeing Connie's work convinced me that I had to photograph her in the subway station. [FYI, one just doesn't lug a bunch of studio photography equipment into the subway. I got written permission from Metro – after I showed I carried $1 million worth of liability insurance.] With permission granted, we worked on the shot in late morning, after rush hour and before the lunch hour, to encounter the fewest passengers.

In photographing artists with their work, the last thing I want to do is make a picture of the artist standing in front of, or beside, his or her painting or sculpture. To me, that all but defines boring. [Which is probably why my portrait of another neon artist, David Yocum, shows David's head filling the frame, one of his sculptures reflected in his eyeglasses.]

In Connie's case, I knew immediately that I wanted to use Metro's great vaulted ceiling to frame both the artist and her work. Knowing that the station was lit by fluorescent light, I made a creative decision to shoot the portrait with daylight-balanced film without filtration so that the ceiling would go green – or precisely the color we try to avoid when shooting under fluorescence normally.

By the same token, I didn't want Connie to look bilious, so it was fairly easy to figure that I would aim a daylight-balanced strobelight at her to render her naturally. In addition, I wanted her to wear white, to make her stand out in the picture, and anything less than daylight-balanced illumination would make her white outfit look weird.

There's a third light source at work here, though it may not be that noticeable at first. Which is cool, since subtlety is good every now and then. The modern, bright tungsten lights that shone from round portholes in the station's stairwells struck me. I wanted to position Connie so that her face would get a nice warm sidelight from the tungsten while her suit was lit by the daylight-balanced strobe.

The effect worked pretty well, I think.

Finally, to add a dramatic element to the shot – this was, after all, a subway station – I waited until a train pulled into (or out of) the station on Connie's left before I made my shots. I worked at roughly one-half to one-quarter of a second. The strobelight acted to freeze Connie fairly well. The fact that I was on a tripod meant that the vaulted ceiling – and Connie's sculpture, of course – would be rendered sharply. And the long shutter speed meant that the subway train would add a compelling blur of motion to an already dramatic picture.

I did learn a couple of other interesting things too.

To be on the safe side, I shot this picture on both color slide and on color negative film since I was unsure exactly how all my light source mixing would show up. It turns out that Kodak's Ektachrome 100 Plus Professional daylight-balanced transparency film gave me exactly what I thought I would get – green ceiling and all.

But ironically, the film that gave me the most accurate rendering of what I saw also provided the most disappointing images. This probably was the only time I didn't appreciate the extra emulsion layer in Fujicolor's Reala color negative film. My 2 ¼ Reala contact sheets – with no special filtration by my lab – depicted a totally beige Metro station ceiling – or precisely what I did not want this time.

Of course, that extra layer has proven itself to be a godsend to me and other photographers who, at other times, have needed to tame the green fluorescent monster on location.

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
Portrait of artist Connie Fleres is lit by strobe, tungsten and fluorescent light – each having a particular impact on the shot and each playing an important role.

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
The Incredible Shrinking Overhead
Simplified Location Portraiture
Simple (but Dramatic) Portraits
Photography's Maine Connection
Hell in a Viewfinder: Kosovo
In Praise of Available Light
Slow Shutter for Better Pix

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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