Van Riper takes nostalgic look at Eastern Shore


April 08, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Those who like their Eastern Shore traditional and folksy will like "Faces of the Eastern Shore: Photographs by Frank Van Riper" at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Others may wish he had given himself a little wider range.

A noted journalist before he turned artist, Van Riper won the 1980 Merriman Smith Award for presidential news coverage for the New York Daily News. He retired in 1987 to pursue photography and now lives in Washington. The current show has been taken from his recent book, with which it shares a name.

Like the book, the show consists of a combination of photographs and accompanying texts (used here as wall labels with print that's too small to be read comfortably). The photos are black and white, richly toned but crisp and clear; they're straightforward, sometimes evoking mood but rarely bordering on sentiment.

One could say much the same about the texts, which shed light on the photos' subjects in easygoing prose that makes you feel a little closer to the people Van Riper photographs. However, occasionally he does lapse into cliche: "Long is one of those people who greet strangers with a bemused smile rather than suspicion. He enjoys pulling your leg, too, and the sound of laughter is never far away."

That's Paul Long of Marion, who sells mechanical junk and who's typical of Van Riper's subjects. The problem with Van Riper's book is that if individual images avoid sentiment, as a group they nevertheless add up to a sentimental vision of the Eastern Shore as an old-fashioned, folksy, down-homey sort of place -- the kind that can be found over there, sure, but that's only part of the story.

Van Riper's people are mostly traditional and rural. They're the farmer who raises pigs or rabbits; the smith -- Van Riper found two of them, a blacksmith and a blade smith who makes knives; the hunters; the oyster shuckers; the duck carvers; the small-shop owners who sell crafts or antiques; and folks who've been around a long time, like Miz Annie Parks, 91, of Tangier Island.

There are little indications here and there that the modern world encroaches on Van Riper's Eastern Shore, such as the picture of Clarence Bell, the first black chief of police in the history of Crisfield. But mostly the photographer prefers subjects like Helen Gaskins, the quilt lady of Chincoteague, and the Salisbury Baptist Temple's drive-in Passion Play, and Ed Thornton of Crisfield who sells junk and spare parts, and the Hooper's Island Gun Club.

The 20th century, with its gas stations and supermarkets, is almost invisible. So are the summer houses of the rich and their boats and their horses, and so is Ocean City and its crowds. But one doesn't see much of the northern Peninsula.

This is, of course, Van Riper's Eastern Shore; he's entitled to his vision, and he does well by it. But there are those who will find his vision simply too quaint and too narrow.


What: Eastern Shore Photos.

Where: Kuhn Library and Gallery, University of Maryland Baltimore County, 5401 Wilkens Ave.

When: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, noon to 6 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through July 11.

Call: (410) 455-2270.

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