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Valle Verzasca

in essay , Tuesday, January 12, 2016

This article was first published in OnLandscape in November 2015 (Issue 102). Since OnLandscape is a (very worthwhile and value for money) pay site, it wasn’t available for general view. Well, now, with a few modifications, it is.

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The geography of Switzerland is dominated by the East-West high alpine ridges that split the country into Northern and Southern parts. The Northern part is where the major cities and industrial centres are located. The Alps themselves are the home of spectacular highlights like the Eiger, the Matterhorn, or the Aletsch Glacier. But the Southern side is a little less well known, and has a quite distinct character. South of the Rhone Valley and the Gotthard massif lies the Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino. And while Ticino certainly has it’s fair share of tall peaks, the highlights, geographically speaking, are to be found in and around a series of glacial valleys descending from the high snowfields, with tumbling rivers feeding into the Maggiore Lake. Any one of these valleys, including the Maggia, Calanca, and the Centovalli, would keep most landscape photographers busy for years, but the jewel in the crown, and the subject of this article, is the Valle Verzasca, through which the river of the same name runs.

The Verzasca valley is around 25km long, stretching due south down from the village of Sonogno, through an endless sequence of cascades, rapids and gullies until it reaches the artificial Lake Vogorno. This is created by a spectacular dam, the Diga di Contra, which was the scene for the opening sequence of the James Bond film Goldeneye, and today is famous for its terrifying bungee jump. Having passed the dam, the river threads its way in a more leisurely fashion before emptying into Lake Maggiore, a few km away from the city of Locarno.

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I defy any landscape photographer with a pulse to get further than a third of the way up the valley without demanding to stop. Even if the temptations of the artificial lake can be resisted, with the clusters of old town houses clinging to one steep side, and the emerald green waters of the lake lapping up against the forests that plunge down to the other side, once you pass the church at Berzona (carefully!) and enter the upper valley, the scenes that unfold are irresistible.

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The bedrock of the Verzasca river is mainly gneiss, and over the millennia this has been eroded by the current to reveal fantastic banding and layering patterns in the rock, which in turn has been sculpted into spectacular forms. Add to this the transparent dark green and emerald waters, a sprinkling of reflected light from the surrounding forests, and any one location could keep you busy for a week. And there are countless such locations. I am fortunate enough to live close enough to the valley to visit pretty much on a whim, and have been doing so for 15 years, but even so, on each visit I discover somewhere or something new.

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The nature of the landscape suits it to a variety of styles, from wide angle vistas all the way down to very intimate details. For some reason, very little has turned up the way of photographic publications from the area, but one book I have found, Pietre in valle Verzasca, by Mario De Biasi, concentrates mainly on detail studies of small scale rock patterns and formations. You can embrace, or leave out, the water. You can feature the surrounding chestnut forests, especially in Autumn, or crop them out. You can pick a short stretch of the river and get to know how all the little details of the flow change with the seasons and the water level. The water level is very variable, and this often leads to certain compositions being quite unrepeatable.

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After Berzona the valley contracts very noticeably, and you start to get glimpses of the river. You can also see the village of Corippo, the smallest municipality in Switzerland, clinging precariously to the opposite slope. Corippo is well worth a visit: the whole village is protected as a Swiss Heritage Site, and remains largely untouched. It was not even accessible by road until the end of the 19th century.

Some of my favourite haunts are found soon after the Corippo crossroads. This part of the river is dynamic and fast moving, and it’s well worth taking a little time to discover paths down to the rocks. A word of warning, though, which applies to the whole valley: be very careful, the rocks are very slippery when wet, and are prone to accumulate black ice the winter. You do not want to fall into that river, even in the summer. It has very strong currents and is very cold. And, sadly, it claims victims every year. Take your time, don’t go down in the gorge alone, and don’t take unnecessary risks. The water level can also change frighteningly quickly, and it is all too easy to get trapped. Since Switzerland is not much of a nanny state, and assumes you can take care of yourself, you won’t find many handrails, but there are an increasing number of warning notices in the parking areas.

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Up until now I’ve managed to completely avoid any mention of the number one attraction of the valley, the village of Lavertezzo. Let’s be clear, you’d probably be best advised to avoid Lavertezzo in the summer, unless of course your photography extends to a more Martin Parr-like style. Lavertezzo is totally gorgeous, but it is completely overrun in summer, even to the extent that large tour busses manage to get there (totally insane in my opinion, and I’ve seen some stuck in the narrow, tight hairpins at the mouth of the valley more than once). However, should you find it at a quiet moment, you’ll find it hard to ignore. The village itself is pretty, but the main attraction is the area just below it, where the river has cut channels of all shapes and sizes through a wide platform uplifted gneiss. Overlooking this is a high, narrow twin arched stone bridge dating from the 17th Century. I described Lavertezzo in a little more detail in an article I wrote back in 2009.

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The human history of Valle Verzasca has, up until the mid–20th Century, been one largely of poverty and subsistence farming. Being a closed valley, it generally attracted less attention from invaders than surrounding regions, and was something of a safe haven. It came under the control, variously, of the Swiss Confederation and various Northern Italian kingdoms, but was always heavily under dominion of the Catholic church. It was also pretty much uninhabitable in the winter, and then the population moved down to the Magadino plain, along with their livestock. Some reminder of this is still evident in place names today, for example you will find the village of Lavertezzo Piano near the foot of the Verzasca, to where the population of Lavertezzo retreated from the snows.

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The forests surrounding the valley have a large proportion of chestnut trees. These were actually planted in the Middle Ages, and provided a critical contribution to the people’s diet. Chestnut flour is still a treasured traditional ingredient in Ticino. However, a blight leading to failed crops bought famine in the late 19th century, leading to mass immigration from the valley, and other surrounding areas, to North and South America, and to Australia. The museum at Sonogno, as well as the one at Cevio in Vallemaggia, document this period. The result was a massive crash in the population, which was far higher than today. If you follow the mountain paths from any of the villages, you quite often come across the ruins of long-abandoned hamlets invaded by the forests. It can be quite moving to sit and imagine the lives of the long-gone inhabitants of these forgotten villages. And of course, there lies another whole world of photographic opportunity.

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Upstream of Lavertezzo the river widens, and rushes over a series of rapids. This area is more interesting for the colours of the larch forests in Autumn, and for a number of quite spectacular waterfalls on the west side of the valley. But the next part is perhaps the richest of all from a photographic perspective. Below the village of Brione, the river drops about 50m over a couple of kilometres, threading its way through a field of huge boulders. You see the end of this stretch where the road crosses the river, about 5km from Lavertezzo. The east bank of this stretch is accessible from a footpath which runs from the bridge all the way up to Brione. Getting to the river itself, or to the west bank, requires a bit of dedicated scrambling, but it’s well worth it. It would take a decade to run out of opportunities here.

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From Brione itself a quiet side valley heads off to the west, the Val d’Osura. This has a quite different character, with the river sluicing over wide limestone shelves. It’s an easy hike up the narrow, largely car-free road, and well worth a detour. The main valley continues up to the village of Sonogno, where it splits. This is also the end of the road for cars, and for the Post Bus. Both branches of the valley are worth exploring, but my favourite is the westerly one, known as Val Retorta, which has many more landscape marvels to offer, and leads eventually to Püscen Negro, the highest village in the valley, now abandoned and never connected to the outside world.

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In summary, if you’re looking for a location which can offer both boundless photographic potential, and also plenty to entertain non-photographer members of the family, this is it. But be warned, you won’t want to leave.

 

Posted in category "essay" on Tuesday, January 12, 2016 at 09:03 PM

Val Verzasca - On Landscape

in Photography in Ticino , Friday, November 06, 2015

I’m pleased to announce that I have just had an article published in the excellent online magazine, On Landscape, about one of my favourite places, both photographically and generally. I’ve been building up to this for quite a while, and finally got around to actually writing it.

Verzasca On Landscape

I’m not sure I’ve really done justice to the subject, either in words or pictures, but maybe it will attract some better photographers than me to work some magic.

Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Friday, November 06, 2015 at 07:07 PM

Shooting the rapids

in Photography in Ticino , Friday, September 04, 2015

Like a moth to a flame, I can’t keep away. Over the past few weeks I’ve spent several evenings in various locations in Valle Verzasca, searching for that perfect photo which encapsulates it all. Needless to say, I haven’t found it yet, but here are some of my latest attempts.

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Some of these were processed in CaptureOne, the rest in Lightroom. Can you tell the difference? I can’t.


Off for a short break in Southern Italy now. Normal service will be resumed in due course.

 

Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Friday, September 04, 2015 at 08:48 PM

A Peculiar Obsession

in Film , Tuesday, May 05, 2015

I do wonder why I keep coming back to film. Apart from feeding the XPan, where I don’t have a choice, it really doesn’t make much logical sense. It may make emotional sense, which is probably more important in a creative context, but to what degree that emotion is nostalgia is debatable. Up until 2003 I shot exclusively film, apart from photography intended for multimedia and illustration work, which I was a lot more interested in that straight photography up until around the turn of the century. I carried on dabbling a little with Medium Format film for a while, but found it too cumbersome to fit in with my very limited photography time.

There is of course a debate which precedes “Film v. Digital”, and that is “Positive (aka Slide) v. Negative” (not to mention “Glass Plate v. Wax Cylinder” or “Vinyl v. Polyester”). I was firmly in the Positive camp, and indeed when I talk about “coming back to film” I actually mean experimenting with negative film. I’ve used Kodak Portra 400 in the XPan, and under a certain type of light, essentially strong Mediterranean sunlight, it works pretty well. Indeed, it is quite difficult to distinguish from my favourite slide film, Kodak E100G, although the E100G is a little denser. I also find Portra gives a slight reddish hue in mid tones, but that could well be down to scanning. And there lies the main issue with negative film: there are a million interpretations of the negative, and they’re all largely subjective. With positive film, you have a reference - the developed slide itself. There is a certain amount of leeway for altering the look of a positive scan - more so than many give it credit for - but essentially, if you got your exposure right, the main objective of scanning slide film is to get as near a match to the transparency itself on a light table, although nothing quite matches that look.

With all that in mind, I nevertheless took my newly acquired Olympus OM4Ti, loaded with Portra 400, to my reference pre-alpine glacial valley, along with my Olympus EM-5 as benchmark. The results are, well, interesting. Being impatient, I had the film processed at a 1-hour photo lab, which was perhaps not ideal. I also had them do some auto-scan JPGs for me as an index.  I then scanned a few frames using Silverfast 8.5 and the Opticfilm 120.  Next, I spent a rainy Sunday tuning a film profile for Portra 400. This is actually a thankless task, as it all depends on exposure, lighting, and intent, and getting one fits-all profile just isn’t going to happen. Silverfast’s new Portra 400 NegaFix profile is a good starting point, but my guess is that it assumes nominal exposure, and I’ve followed the current Portra gurus and dialled in +2 stops. Fiddling around with film profiles is far too much like hard work, but I eventually got something I liked. Although once I’d loaded the processed scans into Photoshop, I found them to be too warm in the midtones. Seems most serious Porta users contract out their scanning, but that’s not much to my taste.

ANYWAY.

The other thing is that my 35mm photography skills are obviously very, very rusty. Being used to Micro Four Thirds focal lengths and depth of fields meant that I got the focus point and aperture completely wrong on the OM4’s 35mm lens. Still, what I’m really interested in here is the colour and to discover if thee is actually any benefit in 35mm negative film.  Here is the evidence for the defence:

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And here, roughly processed with CaptureOne’s Film Curve tuned for Olympus E-P5, is the evidence for the prosecution:

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I guess that if you look just at the general scene rendition, there’s not that much in it. But the film images took more than a few hours and quite a lot of money to get to that point. The digital image took a few seconds and is essentially free.

So why bother with film at all? Good question. At 35mm I’m not sure there’s any point at all, at least for landscape, but at larger film sizes (including 24 x 65mm) the story is a little different. Film cameras are fun to use, of that I am in no doubt. But digital cameras can be ok too. And getting the final result out of film is another matter altogether.

I’m not quite done yet. Film deserves a better chance, with more careful technique and optimisations with filters and stuff.  And for some reason, the digital advantage seems lesser in urban settings. Also, the positive v. negative debate remains. Perhaps I should treat the OM4 to one of my few remaining rolls of E100G, or more sensibly, a roll of Provia 100F. And on the other hand, there are clearly scenarios where Portra 400, or perhaps Fuji 400H, makes the XPan a far more flexible tool.  But ultimately, what I miss about film is seeing transparencies on a light table. There’s no better way to edit a shoot, in my opinion, and you lose that with negative.

 

Posted in category "Film" on Tuesday, May 05, 2015 at 10:33 PM

Down by the river

in Photography in Ticino , Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The river cutting through the rocks at the village of Lavertezzo, in the Verzasca Valley in Ticino, Switzerland, is one of my favourite places to photograph. It helps that it’s not very far from where I live, too, a fact I sometimes forget to be grateful enough for.  I can pretty much go there whenever I want, if I can be bothered to get off my a**e.

Last week I was in the valley and couldn’t resist a quick session around sundown.  There are two sets here, taken with different cameras. It’s interesting to see the differences. First up, the Sigma DP2 Merrill, with it’s fixed 50mm equivalent lens.

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Lavertezzo - Sigma DP2M

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Lavertezzo - Sigma DP2M

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Lavertezzo - Sigma DP2M

Then, the Olympus E-5 with the 12-60mm (24-120 equivalent) lens.

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Lavertezzo - Olympus E-5 / Zuiko 12-60mm

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Lavertezzo - Olympus E-5 / Zuiko 12-60mm

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Lavertezzo - Olympus E-5 / Zuiko 12-60mm

When I originally got into the Olympus E-System, part of the attraction was the 4:3 image aspect ratio. It was very much a creative choice, and remains that way. It is close to the Medium Format 645 format which I always liked. Using the Sigma with its “35mm” 3:2 ratio is always a bit of shock. It feels quite constrained. This is of course very contrary of me, because the wider aspect ratio of 3:2 is generally considered to be better for landscape, which is probably my basic niche. But it isn’t so good in vertical orientation, which I do quite a lot of, even though I haven’t shown any examples here.

Otherwise, comparing the output of the two cameras is not so easy at these small sizes, but one interesting point is that, opposite to what might be expected, you can get more useable depth of field out of the Sigma. It is quite comfortable at f/11 or even f/16, where f/11 is on the extreme limit for the Olympus, and at f/16 diffraction is very noticeable, even to me who on the whole doesn’t give much of a damn about pixels.

The colour of the Sigma is different. It is more natural - or at least it can be, on a good day, but also somehow thinner, less saturated. Generally you can’t do that much in post-processing to Sigma files until they start looking distinctly odd. But when they’re good, they’re very good indeed. And the detail is just breathtaking. But the Olympus isn’t that far behind, and the files are much more malleable - which is just as well, because generally they need a bit of a boost.

A lot of people bang on (and on) on the inter webs about “IQ” - image quality, not intellectual quotient - far from the latter, indeed. And the Sigma indisputably has better “IQ”. And it can be fun to use, when all its ducks are nicely aligned.  But the Olympus E-5 is always fun to use. It is a wonderful camera to use on a tripod, with the totally orientable screen, coupled with the best Live View implementation on the market allowing it to pretend to be a view camera, and the abundance of dials and buttons making it easy to use in tricky conditions. It’s as equally at home sitting sedately on a tripod here as rolling around in the bottom of a Zodiac in the Antarctic (which the Sigma most definitely was not!). And the fact that it is as tough as old nails is extremely useful in my case. So for me, the usability, responsiveness and enjoyment I get out of the E-5 trumps the unbelievable shots that the Sigma can produce…just.  If Sigma produce an DSLR with Live View one day, with a few of the rough edges of the SD1 smoothed off I might be tempted, since we’re at the end of the road so far as Olympus DSLRs are concerned.  But, whoa, I’d lose my beloved 4:3 ratio. Not sure I could live with that.

But the most important thing, after all, is to just get out there and use this stuff to pursue whatever vision, obsession or interest you have. Photography for me is as much about blocking out the noise and allowing myself to relax and chill out. Obsessing about cameras is totally counter-productive.

For more background on Lavertezzo, see the article I wrote some time back. And if that’s not enough, I’ve got a gallery you might like to browse through.


after the heat
the tourists have gone … well, mostly
the postcard shop is boarded up
a hush has descended over the valley
the snow will not be long to follow
but old man river
he just keeps rollin’ along

 

Posted in category "Photography in Ticino" on Wednesday, November 06, 2013 at 09:38 PM

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