It was 1968, and after a long day of West Coast campaigning, Hubert Humphrey was settling in to relax and chat with the press corps on his flight back to Washington, D.C. The light was shimmering perfectly through the window onto the presidential candidate’s face when New York Daily News political correspondent Frank Van Riper nabbed a spontaneous photo with his Nikon F camera. That picture, in a subsequent article, would earn the young journalist a tiny photo credit in addition to his byline.
Van Riper was thrilled, but his colleagues were miffed. When the reporter arrived back at the office, he learned that Daily News staff photographers had threatened to file a union grievance over his edging into their territory. “Here I had the temerity to take a picture,” Van Riper, now 55, recalls. “So I was told by the bureau chief never to do it again.”
Only after retiring from the Daily News, 15 years ago, did Van Riper return to melding his writing and his photography. “They both allow me to understand my environment and enjoy it,” he says. “Photography means literally writing—only with light. For me, being a writer as well as a writer with light is a natural combination then.”
Recently, Van Riper published Talking Photography: Viewpoints on the Art, Craft, and Business, a collection of his Washington Post photography columns—which ran first in the paper’s Weekend section and are now featured on the publication’s Web site—that chronicles his adventures as a documentarian and commercial photographer. “It’s not a manufacturer’s bulletin or some kind of technical work for photography geeks,” says Van Riper, who lives in the Chevy Chase neighborhood of Washington. “Who needs another book on how to shoot under fluorescent light?”
Instead, Van Riper offers stories. He tells one about riding a snowmobile with 31 pounds of gear to get a picture of a bear cub in the Maine woods. He laments his departed golden retriever, Daily News, who was the subject of many of his test photos. He reveals the secrets of shooting a Stephen King portrait and simple tricks for wedding jobs: Remember to change your batteries beforehand, no matter how fresh you think they are.
The Bronx-bred newspaper nut—who, as a boy, developed photos in his bathtub—was kicked out of the City College of New York his freshman year for spending too much time at the campus paper and not enough with his textbooks. He begged his way onto academic probation and graduated in 1967. A year later, Van Riper found himself a rookie reporter for the Washington bureau of the Daily News. “Suddenly, I was being paid to do something I loved,” he says. “I just couldn’t believe I was there.” After covering presidential campaigns, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, Van Riper in 1979 won a Nieman Fellowship to study government at Harvard University.
When Van Riper came back to Washington, he continued reporting and produced a prize-winning series with the late journalist Lars-Erik Nelson—to whom he dedicates Talking Photography—on the hostage situation in Iran. They received the Merriman Smith Award for deadline reporting—named, incidentally, after Van Riper’s hero of the first presidential campaign he covered, in 1968. “I remember seeing Merriman dictate his leads to UPI,” Van Riper says. “They would flow like cream.”
But in 1987, feeling squeezed by budget cuts—in one case scolded for wasting company money by going down to Florida to cover a campaign—Van Riper left the Daily News and set out for a career in photography with his wife, Judith Goodman. The two have since shot 600 weddings, including those of Judith Martin’s (aka Miss Manners) son and journalist Jim Lehrer’s daughter. They’ve also turned to documentary photography. In that genre, Van Riper has published two books, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated Down East Maine and another called Faces of the Eastern Shore; his next book will feature his stories alongside both his and his wife’s photographs of Venice in the winter. “I used to say, ‘As a reporter, they pay me to be nosy,’” Van Riper says, “and as a documentarian, I’m doing the same thing.” —Rachel K. Sobel
Frank Van Riper will speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 24, at Borders, 11301 Rockville Pike, Kensington.