Pictures & Opening Day

Byline: Frank Van Riper

On a sunny Spring day back in 1971, then-President Richard Nixon threw out the Opening Day first pitch at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC.

The home team was the reincarnated Washington Senators. The original Senators had moved to Minnesota in 1961; the newbies, also called the Senators, were an expansion team.

Pictures & Opening Day Nixon fancied himself a knowledgeable sports fan (he once suggested a play to then-Washington Redskins coach George Allen -- a fellow Republican). On that opening day in '71 the president didn't have to traipse to the pitcher's mound to perform his ceremonial duty. Nixon pegged his throw (reasonably well, as it happened) from the ground-level presidential box to the waiting Senators catcher. The picture made the papers the next day, and the shot of Nixon throwing the ball, taken from the field and looking into the stands, ultimately was blown up to mural size and made its way to an exhibition on presidential first pitches at the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, NY.

Which is as close as I ever will come to being in the Hall of Fame, since I was the New York Daily News reporter covering Nixon's appearance that day from just a few rows back. In the Cooperstown photo I could be seen over the President's shoulder along with a handful of other Washington reporters who, like me, had talked their bosses into letting them cover this oh-so-important story on a beautiful--and otherwise very slow--news day.

What Nixon didn't know then was that he would be the last president for 34 years to throw out a first pitch at RFK. The hapless Senators ("First in War, First in Peace, last in the American League"), left town for Arlington, Texas after the 1971 season, starting a more than three-decade dry spell for the Nation's Capital, bereft of a major league ballclub.

But now of, of course, that has changed.

For those living on Mars, or perhaps Boston or New York, I am pleased and proud to inform that Washington has its own major league baseball team again: the Washington Nationals. Having a real baseball team in DC would be pleasure enough. When the season began last April no one really expected much from the franchise, which had come down from Montreal and a woeful period as the prodigiously losing Montreal Expos.

But, damn, this team rocks!

We have tasted first place. We are pitching. We are hitting. We are kicking baseball butt.

Maybe it's our leaded water. In any event, we are very, very happy.

At the Nats' historic home opener April 14, President Bush, a huge baseball fan himself, took to the mound and threw out the first pitch. But Bush had thrown out first pitches before. To aficionados of the game, the real history was to be made when the game began, after the first real pitch of the first home game of the first Washington baseball team in 34 years.

Lots of photographers, professional and amateur, were there to make photographs that evening at RFK, but I think my friend and colleague David Pellegrini, whose day job is as a clinical psychologist, made one of the best, most atmospheric, images of the entire night.

And he made it with a toy camera: his trusty 2 _ format Chinese-made Holga.

"I was going for a grainy, soft-focus image that the Holga, with Delta film, [nb: Ilford's ultra high-speed ISO 3200 emulsion] provides so well," Dave said in an e-mail.

The 3200 film, which Dave pushed to an even higher ISO of 6400, "captures such a 'painterly' image that can feel wonderfully dreamy. Opening night for me [was] a representative example of what Jung referred to as the 'collective unconscious.' That first ballgame feels so much like a dream from childhood. It brings me back to being a little boy with my dad, the first harbinger of the coming of summer and vacation, and sandlot ball, and escaping the house and school to toss around the ball with my dad. It was my main way of connecting with him--I know it is for so many boys and their dads. It was such a ritual, going to opening day and other ballgames with my dad. And rickety old, non-yuppie, unfancy RFK reminds me so much of old Connie Mack Stadium in North Philly."

The very "imperfectness" of Pellegrini's Holga image -- we really can't make out who is pitching or who is hitting -- lends a general quality to the photo. We know there's a ballgame going on in DC and we know it is an historic night. But after that, the image is universal -- which only adds to its appeal.

"So," Dave said, "in addition to capturing that magic moment (first home team batter) on a magic night (opening night)...I also wanted to capture the collective experience of the crowd. Looking on with and at the other onlookers--I love the heads of other folks 'in the way.' It's notsupposedto be like watching it on TV, a 'clear' view of the action."

There was an added bonus that night as well.

"The fact that I was there with my friend who was repeating his childhood experience by taking his own son to opening night--that was fun. That gave me an opportunity to take an 'incidental portrait' of a young fan who doesn't have that conscious awareness that comes with posing. And it's happening at a moment of social history, at a collective group experience--his looking at the game, and his looking at the other lookers (like me, looking at the lookers) and so it goes 'round and 'round..."

Postscript: one month after David made his photos, Judy and I drew first pitch duty at RFK as well. One of our commercial clients had sponsored a baseball outing for several hundred of its employees and their families and we were there to record everyone having a great time -- as well as shoot the boss of the firm throwing out the first pitch of the game. Sol did just fine with his pitch, one of two such events scheduled that day. But it turned out the most dramatic photo came afterward, when a five-person first pitch was staged, involving representatives of all branches of the armed forces, just returned from Iraq. I quickly stationed myself behind home plate and waited for the throws.

All I had to do was get all five balls in the air.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will once again teach his popular 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this fall and winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin September 22nd and February 15th respectively and run from 7pm to 10:30pm each week.

In addition, Frank will teach a one day, hands-on flash photography workshop, Saturday, October 1st, entitled "Flash Photography Demystified...or Flash is Your Friend (Honest.)"

In the documentary class students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the session. Students wishing to accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information on both the documentary course and flash workshop: 301-320-7757.

Frank's Picks

An occasional feature with Frank Van Riper's recommendations of current shows, exhibitions, etc. that are worthy of a look. They concentrate on -- though are not limited to -- photography and the visual arts.

"Under the Influence" of Tom Wolff, through August 28

Tom Wolff's puckish profile and flyaway hair are familiar to anyone in the Washington photography community. But Tom is more than a memorable presence; he is a superb photographer and a wonderful, energetic and supportive teacher.

[I know. Some two decades ago I studied under Tom at Photo Works at Glen Echo Park, the DC-area photography program that he helped found 30 years ago with such other now-household names as Rhoda Baer and Frank "Tico" Herrera. One reason I am now on the Photo Works faculty was Tom's great example.]

In what amounts to an homage to this terrific guy -- as well as a showcase for some of the area's best upcoming talent--the Spectrum Gallery in Georgetown now offers "Under the Influence," an exhibition of Tom's work as well as that of four other photographers -- all Tom's former students -- whom Wolff has invited to show along with him.

Besides Tom, who is showing a series of images reflecting the American West -- actually or in spirit -- Spectrum Gallery is featuring the work of John Borstel, Prescott Moore Lassman, Leta O'Steen and Emily Whiting.

Whiting, who now teaches at Photo Works herself, said of her former mentor: "A conversation with Tom is always a lesson, in essence, in recognizing the infinite dimensions of one thing in the context of something else..."