Frank Van Riper ’79

Van Riper reported from Washington, D.C. for the (New York) Daily News before becoming a photography columnist for The Washington Post. Now a documentary and fine art photographer, he teaches photography workshops in the U.S. and Italy

The first indication that I was not in Kansas anymore was the row of gleaming enlargers in the darkroom of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. To someone who had learned his photocraft making prints in his Bronx bedroom and washing them in his Bronx bathtub, this row of beautiful machines was emblematic of Harvard’s riches.

I had come to Harvard in the fall of ’78 as a Washington correspondent for the (New York) Daily News. Though I long had been an avid amateur photographer, I made my living back then as a writer. My year at Harvard opened up so many new doors. I took Music One. I read “Moby Dick” for the first time and could not shut up about it. I learned how to play squash. And I got back into the darkroom and realized that I loved it there.

Though the Carpenter Center enlargers were wonderful, it was in a little-used darkroom in one of the river houses where I felt the first stirrings that, on my return to Washington, there could be more to life than writing 10 punchy inches every day for the Daily News. In fact, I went back to DC more eager than ever to write longer, more interpretive articles, which showed up in the quantum increase in my production of Sunday opinion pieces and magazine takeouts. This eagerness grew from the writing seminar I looked forward to every week in the living room of Harvard English instructor Diana Thomson, wife of then-curator Jim Thomson.

This was real storytelling, and I was influenced by all of it—as well as by the renewed pull of visual storytelling that made me yearn once more to have a camera in my hand. By 1987 I was working full time as a photographer, producing a succession of photo books, from a biography of John Glenn to the most recent one, “Serenissima: Venice in Winter.” None of this could have happened if I had not gone back into the darkroom at Harvard.

Click on an image below to view a slideshow of select photographs by Frank Van Riper.

All photos