One Project Done -- And A New Beginning

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Friday, July 1, 2005; 12:35 PM

With this column, Frank Van Riper resumes his regular appearance in Camera Works. -- Ed.

The low moaning of the sirens gives the first public warning, though, like sailors taught to divine the weather from the clouds, Venetians know from experience -- and perhaps even in their bones--when the water is about to rise.

High water, acqua alta, is a continuing presence in Venice, most often occurring with the confluence of high tide, full moon, high winds and rain. And, though rarely flooding sidewalks or squares more than a foot or so, it can force pedestrians in low-lying areas to don boots or to traverse boardwalks to get to and fro. It is an increasing phenomenon, too, if one tracks the weather and the tide charts over decades. Where once measurable high water occurred mostly in winter, today it is possible to experience a submerged Serenissima year-round, even under clear skies.

To combat this Venice has embarked on a huge public works project to impede extreme high tides through a series of hydraulically operated submerged gates at the mouth of the Venetian lagoon.

One need only troll the worldwide web to find pictures of hefty Hawaiian-shirted tourists (one assumes they are American) wading through Piazza San Marco, or to see an enterprising person in a T-shirt paddling a brightly colored kayak through what Napoleon famously called the drawing room of Europe. Venetian photojournalist Gianfranco Tagliapietra once made a colorful shot of the American movie star Julia Roberts, attending the Venice Film Festival, splashing happily through the Piazza in a light summer dress and high rubber boots.

So why, one might ask, did it take Judy and me six years to finally photograph this phenomenon for our just-completed book about Venice in Winter?

Got me. All I know is that our latest one-month working visit to Venezia was going to be the last one for this book, whether or not we got high water photos. Somewhere, somehow, the photo gods smiled on us, and you can see some of the results here.

Laboring on Serenissima: Venice in Winter, was an ever-changing exercise in location photography. It gave Judy and me an increased appreciation of our globe-trotting photojournalist colleagues and the hassles they still must endure post- 9/11--as well as an even greater appreciation for the joys of traveling with minimal equipment and of working by available light.

[Completing this book also gave me the chance to return to this space, from which I have been absent far too long. It's good to be back and I thank all of you for the e-mails I received during this hiatus. They meant a great deal to me.]

When the Venice project began in earnest, back in 1998, it was common for Judy and me to travel with seemingly everything we owned, including: three medium format bodies (a Hasselblad 500CM and a Superwide CM as well as a rangefinder Mamiya 6), several medium format lenses, four 35mm bodies between us (three SLR Nikons and one rangefinder Leica M6), four or five 35mm lenses, two professional exposure meters (Minolta Flashmeter IV and its Spotmeter brother) a Polaroid back for the Hasselblads, not to mention a specially modified Vivitar 283 flash and a big high-voltage battery pack to power it.

Even in those pre-9/11 days, air travel with this much camera gear was no picnic, and Judy and I quickly jettisoned a fair amount of it as we planned the next trip. Gone, for example, were the Hasselblads, their lenses, and the bulky Pola-back. We simply didn't use them that much. The much more compact Mamiya 6 -- a great, silent camera, much like the Leica rangefinder -- stayed.

The high voltage battery pack, such a great boon when we shoot high-volume weddings or events in and around Washington, was not that vital in Venice, where we could pick and choose the times we needed to use flash (and thus rely on only four tiny double-A's for juice.) Besides, the thing weighed almost as much as a brick and in these more security-conscious times it easily could have raised eyebrows as an ominous and unusual black box stowed among one's luggage.

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