Venice in monochrome
in Book Reviews , Tuesday, January 24, 2017
A quick survey of this website will reveal the author’s recurrent obsession with Venice. Indeed, if Venice had ice and penguins I’d never need to go anywhere else. Since another popular theme of mine is phonebooks PHOTObooks, damn it, Apple auto-correct - then there is an obvious intersection to explore. However, as I’ve noted in the past, this particular crossroads is less populated than one might expect. In fact to date I’ve yet to find a book of Venice photography that really grabs me, although I discuss on that last link, there are a couple that get close.
Well, now there’s a new candidate to consider: Timeless, by Rafael Rojas. Over the past 5 years or so Rafael has been steadily building a reputation as one of Europe’s leading and most inventive landscape photographers. It might therefore seem a little strange for his first published monograph to feature not wild, colourful open spaces, but instead restrained monochrome studies of Venice. And indeed, taking it another step away from the habitual by photographing exclusively on film. With a fully manual prehistoric Hasselblad. But I’m certainly not complaining.
The first thing that struck me about Timeless was the painstaking attention to detail and to providing a rich visual, subtle experience - and this was even before I bought the book: the dedicated website is a work of art in itself. The physical book fully backs up that impression. It arrives nestled in a black, silver printed slipcase, the book itself bound in vermillion hardcover. The whole presentation is somehow reminiscent of the spirit of La Fenice, an impression reinforced by the frontispiece. The print quality is just sumptuous, with deep, rich blacks and subtle tonalities. At the risk of repeating myself, the care and attention to detail that just leaps out of the pages is quite remarkable.
photography copyright © Rafael Rojas
As far as I am concerned, any Venetian photobook loses points for the showing following subjects: gondolas, The Rialto, The Grand Canal from the bloody Rialto, gondolas, St Mark’s Square, carnival masks, actually pretty much anything to do with the carnival, and gondoliers. And San Giorgio Maggiore is right on the limit. Oh, and did I mention gondolas ? Naturally, I’ve personally photographed all of these hundreds of times. And naturally, most are to be found within the pages of Timeless. But, crucially, they are all treated in original and interesting ways. Moreover, Timeless visits the quiet backwaters of Venice, featuring places I immediately recognise without having any idea where they are, but could surely find. Laundry hanging out over a nocturnal Castello contrada, quiet details from areas so close to, yet so far from the swamped, stifling tourist hotspots.
The real star of Timeless, and indeed Venice itself, is stone. Stone in all its forms which has been used to create this absurd, impossible city, floating on a bed of mud and ancient wooden pilings. The photography revels in the endless combinations of texture of stone, the interplay with glancing natural and artificial light, with fog, with water, always reminding of the sheer unlikeliness and ingenuity of it all. Through the study of light and stone Timeless gets right to the heart of Venice. It’s a book to revisit and explore time and time again.
Obviously, I fully recommend this book. You should stop reading right now and get over here to order it. And yet…
And yet, Timeless is missing one important dimension for me. It’s obviously very subjective, but what else would it be: colour. For me, there is something absolutely unique about colour in Venice, especially winter light. It is incredibly hard to capture on film, needing an extremely delicate touch, and so I can understand the temptation of black and white. I don’t want to imply that black and white is some kind of surrender or second best choice - personally I’m completely inept at it, not that I’m much better at colour. But there still seems to be a certain strand of opinion that colour photography is for tourists. I’m certain Rafael Rojas does not share that view, and I understand that Timeless has certain set parameters, within which it succeeds brilliantly, but I’d love to see him produce a colour photography companion.
[Disclosure - I should note that Rafael and I are friends, but I’m a full-price paying customer, and this review was neither requested nor influenced in any way]
see those dots on the horizon there ?
in Antarctica , Sunday, January 01, 2017
At the end of November, we set off on a 10 day "expedition cruise" operated by Oceanwide Expeditions
, branded as "Search for the Emperor Penguin". The cruise, aboard the M/V Ortelius, was to head into the northernmost region of the Weddell Sea, and hopefully reach Snow Hill Island, where a number of Emperor penguin colonies had been discovered some years previously. Snow Hill Island is actually well out of what was usually understood as the range of the Emperor, being well North of the Antarctic Circle. The colony had been reached twice before by tourist operations, several times by the icebreaker Kapitan Khlebnikov chartered by Quark Expeditions, and once by Ortelius itself in 2013. Ortelius is quite an unusual Antarctic cruise ship in that it has a helideck and hangar, and enough space for 2 to 3 helicopters. In this case, 2 were carried. The ideal situation would be that the ship would be able to get close enough to Snow Hill island to be able to use the helicopters to ferry passengers to a location on the sea ice at least 2km distant from the colonies, from where they would be reached on foot. This is a pretty ambitious plan - with a lot to go wrong. It appeared than a significant proportion of the passengers did not really realise quite how ambitious it actually was, and how low the chances of success were.
In order to succeed, the following ducks needed to be in a neat row:
- ship able to reach within approx 40km of the landing target
- adequate visibility for safe helicopter operation
- low enough windspeed for safe helicopter operation
- calm sea conditions
- penguin colonies actually there
- sea ice conditions suitable for safe travel by complete amateurs
In the past years, very few of the conditions had been met. Up until 2016 Oceanwide had 4 attempts at carrying this through, with a success rate of just 1 actual landing (if I understand correctly). This time round, absolutely everything worked out fine ... except for the last point. The Ortelius encountered open water for almost all of Admiralty Sound, but the remaining sea ice, where the colonies are located, turned out to be in very poor state. In several areas there were surface pools, along with areas which looked recently refrozen, and there were many rifts and cracks. A little to the south there was open water into the Weddell Sea, as far as the eye could see. Possibly it might have been feasible for experienced sea ice travellers to make a safe traverse, but no way could 110 blundering tourists be unloaded. Furthermore the helicopter crews did not feel that the ice would reliably support the weight of a helicopter.
M/V Ortelius up against the sea ice west of Snow Hill island, with Lockyer Island in the background.
So, sadly, that was that. There were a lot of very unhappy punters on board, but while it was natural to be disappointed, a lot of people seemed to think they were on a day trip to Disneyland or something. Antarctic operations, especially tourist cruises, need to take a very conservative approach to safety. Anything that goes wrong would very likely go wrong very badly. There was perhaps a significant lack of timely information and explanation provided by the staff, which didn't help the atmosphere, but that in itself changed nothing so far as conditions were concerned.
Everybody did at least get an overflight of the colonies, and spotted a few solitary emperors on sea ice near to the ship. These in themselves are experiences that very few people have had, but these days it seems that expectations run ridiculously high. The desire to grab photographic trophies to post on Facebook or wherever blinds people from the richness of actual experiences.
Emperor penguin colony from the air (the dots on the right). Being British (well, sort of), I obeyed the rules and didn't take a telephoto lens in the helicopter.
As it turned out, the colonies appeared to be thriving. As I understand it, we expected to find 3, in fact there were 5. I'm not sure how much longer this will be the case though. By the look of things the sea ice is very vulnerable. Very strong currents run through Admiralty Sound between Snow Hill and James Ross Island, which I assume are driven by the Weddell Sea gyre, and if there is a complete breakup in a summer season, it is hard to see how it will recover. Multiyear ice seems to be very sparse. The breakup of the Larsen A & B ice shelves in the same region has been partly blamed on rising surface water temperatures, so the outlook cannot be good. With no sea ice there will be no penguins.
Emperor penguin on the sea ice edge
The standard price of this trip is, for the lowest standard two berth cabin we had, $13K per person. Fortunately we got an extremely reduced offer, or I would not be writing this. I get a reasonable salary, but $13K for a 10 day trip is way beyond reality, never mind pain threshold. Oceanwide expeditions is a good company, and they are quite open about the chances of success - meaning physically reaching the emperor colonies - but unless it is something you really, really want to do, and are prepared to take a big gamble, there are much better Antarctic cruises on offer at very significantly lower prices, including with Oceanwide. Helicopters don't come cheap.