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.
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]
Cameras get in the way of photography. That sounds like a fairly ridiculous statement, but I think it is difficult to argue against. I’d like to think I’m interested in photography, but of the far too many hours I spend browsing the web, I spend far more reading about cameras than I do about photography and photographers. But what is very noticeable is that the more engaging photographers just don’t talk about cameras at all (and usually have dull websites, but that’s another matter). Maybe they feel a stigma attached to such discussion, or maybe they’re just not interested. But anyway, when the discussion veers towards cameras, as it usually does, something is lost. Of course, ten seconds on this site shows quite clearly which camp I’m in. It’s not exactly a gear site - and after all, these do encompass quite a wide spectrum - but it hardly ignores cameras or other paraphernalia of photography-as-hobby. So I’m in no position to judge, even if I were judging, which I’m not - just observing. But coming back to the original statement, I do find that the more I think about cameras, the less interested I am in photography, and the less interesting my photography gets. Fortunately I have by and large stayed with the same principal brand and gear over a very long period, and I’ve never been afflicted by the more extreme cases of the malady which involve switching brand every 6 months. But nevertheless, if there is one thing that separates photography as art from photography as hobby, it’s the susceptibility to Gear Acquisition Syndrome.
The cycle of endless new, improved, must-have cameras has slowed down a bit, but it hasn’t stopped. It has changed tack a bit, and now we’re seeing design becoming much more prevalent in the marketing push, especially retro design sparking nostalgia for the alleged romance of the mechanical heyday of the film era.
So, what bought this on? Well, a new camera on the market, basically. Namely, the new Olympus Pen-F. It’s a nice looking piece of metal, and it is getting mainly rave reviews everywhere (although this review, from an actual Olympus employee, is strikingly lukewarm). Amongst Olympus owners, of which I’m one, there is a discernible of peer pressure to buy one. Well, yes, it’s a nice camera, but I’ve already got an Olympus Pen, an E-P5, and that took me long enough to decide to buy. The Pen-F, apart from the striking design, has 4 Megapixels more (not terribly significant), a fixed built-in EVF, and lots of new modes aimed at doing everything in camera, outputting JPEG, when for the last decade we’ve had it piled on us that we should be shooting Raw. What the Pen-F does not have, but what the E-P5 does, at least as an accessory, is a tilting EVF which allows you to hold the camera at chest level, and affords a different way of shooting and different perspectives. For some this is uninteresting, for me it’s a big plus. Also the E-P5 EVF is the same as the one on the top of the range E-M1, and superior to that on the Pen-F. Add into that an eye-wateringly high price, and well, for now at least I think I’ll pass.
This leads on nicely to the previous “upgrade” cycle, when the E-P5 replaced the E-P3. There again I dragged my feet, as I was used to the E-P3, and Olympus had moved the controls around disturbing my reflexes. But there were a couple of compelling arguments that time, so eventually, I switched. But I didn’t just abandon the E-P3. Instead I had it converted to infrared, which gives me a good excuse to water down this gear-obsessed post with some photography, a selection of infrared shots from Venice, taken back in December.
I can’t keep away from the gear, but it really is a relief to get back to photography.
Despite many visits to Venice, the eastern, seaward end of the city has always eluded me. So on my last visit I was determined to make this my focal point. I have to admit from the glimpses I had in the past, I expect something more like the apartment blocks of the outer reaches of Cannaregio, or even Sacca Fisola. While there is an element of this, in fact I discovered that the area cut through by via Garibaldi has a quite distinctive character, subtly different to any other part of Venice. However the part that really caught my imagination is the little island of San Pietro, right at the northern tip. A few hundred years ago I imagine San Pietro was not the quiet backwater it is today. The Basilica di San Pietro di Castello was in fact up until 1807 the city’s cathedral church, even though St Mark’s was already more dominant. But now it is very peaceful, and only dedicated tourists venture this far away from the fake Burano glass and carnival mask sellers.
Actually, I didn’t even go into the Basilica. Churches aren’t really my thing. I did open the door, but on seeing the inevitable ticket booth, I declined to go further. If the Catholic Church has decided that the primary purpose of ecclesiastical architecture is to make money, then it is hardly surprising that the only relevance it has today in much of the world is to tourists. I’m quite happy to make donations, but even an agnostic such as I am looks as much for a sense of the spiritual in a church as a collection of mouldy, dark old paintings by some vaguely famous Italian bloke. And that sense is stopped in its tracks by a ticket booth.
But anyway, it hardly mattered, because the visual treasure trove was immediately next door, in and around an old colonnaded courtyard backing on to the Basilica. I can’t actually find a reference to this place, and I suspect it is in a fleeting state of transition between out of bounds Church property and a luxury development of charming residences with Genuine Venetian Fittings™. It was marked “private”, but I spent at least two hours wandering around, and the two or three people I saw there didn’t seem to mind. They obviously thought I was a bit weird, though.
Not that I would know anything about it - despite a brief dabble - but this seems the perfect location for a certain genre of portrait photography. Since I didn’t have one to hand, I’m afraid you’ll just have to imagine the models, in the set below.
All photos from Sigma DP0, except the first and second after the text, which are Kodak Portra 400 / Voigtländer Bessa III
So, Day 2 in Venice. A nice day, but not exactly breaking any photographic boundaries. I certainly took some photos, but they’re not going to win any prizes. Two positive points though - first, at long last I made it out to the San Pietro and Santa Elena areas. San Pietro especially is well worth a visit. This is a Venice a million miles away from St Mark’s Square and the Rialto. Of course, most people would find it totally pointless. Not even a selfie-stick salesman in sight. Which is why “most people” don’t go there, and I do.
Second point, visiting Gianni Galassi‘s wonderful exhibition, Elogio della Luce, at the equally wonderful Wilmotte Foundation. His monochrome architectural abstracts look even better in print.
But, unfortunately, a large part of the day I spent comatose due an ongoing throat infection that just will not go away…
Once again, I’m back in Venice. I arrived this afternoon after a 4 hour drive dodging trucks and insane Italians (all of whom - the insane ones that is - drive Audis, for some reason). The idea is some seriously needed rest & recuperation, wandering around Venice with a camera. Or five. Well, I did leave a few at home. With me are my brand new Sigma DP0 Quattro and Olympus E-M1, both the result of a recent what-the-hell retail therapy binge.
Things have not got off to a good start, really. I spend the late afternoon on a wide wander from Dorsoduro to Piazza Roma, Cannaregio, San Marco and back, generally fairly disconsolate and wishing I hadn’t bothered. I not exactly “in the Zone”. In fact I don’t even know where or what the Zone is. I’m not even getting the buzz of being in Venice.
I came here with a concept I’ve had in mind for a month or so. I’m not going to go into it now, in case somebody steals it, but I think it is a pretty good concept. Of some Artistic Worth, even. The problem is, although I can express the idea verbally, I’ve really no clear idea of how to approach it photographically. So, the pressure of this, added to the counter-attraction of playing with new toys (despite the fact that I really, but really don’t get much thrill out of that any more), and a general mental exhaustion after a fairly tough year, result in total creative block.
Later, after a chance meeting with another photographer (hi Daniele) - Sigmas are really good conversation starters - a later, a small but tasty risotto ai fungi porcinei, and a glass of prosecco, I started to feel a little better, and played around doing some night shots.
Maybe tomorrow will be a little brighter.
Footnote: since the only thing I seem to be able to put my mind to is playing around with gadgets, I suppose I can allow myself one little bit of geekery. Below is a 1:1 sample of the centre part of the image above, at the end of the passageway. Personally I find it pretty impressive…