Earlier this week, I was fortunate to come across a captivating exhibition in Venice, called Isola Nova. Presented by the Wilmotte Foundation, “Isola Nova” is the work of French artist Philippe Calandre, who’s work is a combination of photography, painting and video. Isola Nova presents a series of imagined new islands, drawing on both the real and the imaginary, combining elements of the real Venice with steampunk-like industry, set within a lagoon of dark, restless seas and skies.
The work is also reminiscent of the original Myst game, with its small, mysterious islands hiding disjointed artefacts and baffling technology. But there is something fundamental about this vision of complex yet contained worlds which strongly appeals to me. I am always drawn to islands, wherever I find them, and the real islands of the Venice lagoon are mysterious enough to me, never mind the fantastic creations of Isola Nova.
The originals are printed quite large. The photography is meticulous, exquisite - ands largely irrelevant. This is photography as an raw material for creativity, not as the end point, and in my opinion this is truly deserving of the label “art” in a way which very, very little photography is. It’s also sort of the way I first got hooked on taking photography seriously, as an input to illustration.
I guess Isola Nova would not be to everybody’s taste, but if by chance you happen to be in Venice before Feb 15th, and you can find your way to Fondamenta dell’Abbazza in Canareggio (it’s not that hard, but it’s a bit off the tourist circuit) then really, the exhibition is well worth a visit.
Of all the photos I took over my recent 3 day trip to Venice, this is my favourite, and the one I chose to print. It’s also the first large (A3+ for now, but I’m going to make an A2 for framing) print I’ve made from a Sigma DP2M file, and the detail is just shockingly good. It’s difficult to settle for less now!
Ok, so it’s not the classic Venice shot by any stretch, but it’s the sort of atmosphere I was looking for. More Michael Dibdin than Agatha Christie.
I was also pleased to find that you can make long exposure photos with the Sigma with no particular problem. The auto white balance is pretty weird, but that is fairly easily fixed.
After 5 weeks in Patagonia and Antarctica, and a huge editing and processing backlog to get through and even maybe publish, what was the obvious thing to do? Of course!! Go to Venice and take some more photos! Well, I’m not making any excuses. Venice is a magical place, especially in February, and it’s just down the road. So. Here is a small selection of, maybe, a slightly different take on La Serenissima. No gondolas, no bridges, no canals (well, almost). And all captured with the quite unbelievable Sigma DP2 Merrill. Oh, and I’ve also got about 300 Olympus Pen Venice shots to get through before I can get back to the backlog!
Venice, apparently, is the photographer’s dream. And indeed, I would imagine that upwards of hundreds of thousands of shots of Her Sereness are captured every day. And yet, it is quite remarkable that searches on the web for interesting books of Venetian photography give pretty barren results. Obviously there are endless shots of the Canale Grande from the Rialto bridge, of St Mark’s square (or rather the square that people think is St Mark’s but isn’t), of gondolas, etc, but actual, creative, thought inspiring stuff ? Not so much.
There are some examples I know of, but they’re quite left of centre. The late Simon Marsden’s “City of Haunting Dreams” is gorgeous, but obviously rather gothic (Marsden is the undisputed master of infrared and “supernatural” photography). And there’s Spanish photographer Toni Catany’s “Venise”, very much a book of two halves, and which seems rather hard to get hold of these days. Leafing through both of these, Catany’s work seems to have influenced me more, at least his later stuff.
I have just ordered Christopher Thomas’ Venice in Solitude, which looks good, but again is a little specialised (he uses a now extinct large format Polaroid film). So where’s the classic ? Where’s the “Lost in Venice” that should be in every bookshop, every Venice corner tourist trap? Apparently it doesn’t exist. Maybe with everybody busy taking their own photos, there’s no market for it ? Maybe it is just impossible to grab and fix that elusive essence of Venice, which keeps flashing in the corner of your eye, but vanishes as you try to fix it on film or screen. Maybe some well-known (but not to me) Italian photographer has cornered the market ? Actually, I don’t think so, I did that search too.
There are a couple of local photographers I discovered selling prints ands stuff, but I’m not going to link to them, because frankly they’re no better than the average visitor. And there are people doing photo tours - should be a sitting target, but again they seem sadly uninspiring.
In the current edition of Reponses Photo, you can find three “alternative” views of Venice, by three winners of Fuji cameras taken to Venice by the slightly ridiculous and rather pretentious Jean-Christophe Bechet. The results are disappointing to put it mildly (although Bechet naturally thinks they’re great). One shot modern docks in the fog - ok, fine, Venice has a modern side. Hold the front page. One shot the inside of (modern) museums - well frankly I would have thought he’d have found more, and better, material in Paris. And one was a little more courageous and shot Venice at night. At least he tried. Why did it not occur to Bechet that the real challenge lies not in avoiding replicating the millions of tourist shots, but perhaps to do them well, with an eye to really nailing what it is that captivates people about the floating city. But no, that wouldn’t be arty enough. Except that it would. Venice could, and should, be the muse for some photographer’s masterpiece. But strangely it doesn’t seem to have happened yet. Maybe I’m just ignorant I’ll carry on searching. Suggestions, anybody ?
This is slightly crazy. A few weeks ago I decided to work on a small set of photos of Venice, converted to black & white using the excellent Nik Silver EFX 2.0. Silver EFX does a pretty good job of turning digital images into emulations of monochrome film photography. So far so good. But then it occurred to me that I was actually transforming scans of positive film into emulations of monochrome negative film, which is not exactly an optimum process, since there’s a good 5 extra stops of exposure range in b&w, and the contrast curve in positive film doesn’t like being stretched too much. Well anyway. I’d probably have been better off loading Agfa Scala in my XPan in the first place. Or even Ektar 100. And apart from that, the originals actually were shot very much with colour in mind. But I quite like the way it all turned out.
I’ve decided to publish the set on 500px. I’ve had an account there for a while, but so far I haven’t used it much. What I like about 500px over Flickr is that it lends itself more to publishing sets, or portfolios. Flickr of course allows you to create sets as well, but it really puts an emphasis on individual photos. I can’t say I’ve built up much of a following over the 5 years or so I’ve been on Flickr, so perhaps it’s worth trying another approach. Personally I feel my photos work better in portfolios - in fact I was nudged in this direction a while ago by a professional photographer friend - but photo sharing sites are pretty much all about the latest shot, followed 15 nanoseconds later by the next. Also somehow photos taken recently are granted more worth than ones taken several years, or more, ago. I don’t really know why that is. These photos are nearly 2 years old, but they wouldn’t look substantially different had I taken them yesterday.
I’m not all that happy about 500px deciding that everybody’s photos should be represented by a square preview. That’s them imposing their aesthetic decision over mine. But I suppose everybody else does this too. Otherwise it’s certainly much cleaner and photo-centric than Flickr.
Here’s one that didn’t make the cut. Possibly a little too clichéd.
And there’s another one that didn’t make it to 500px, but ended up on Flickr instead. Well, I wouldn’t want them to feel left out.