One Project Done -- And A New Beginning
Frank Van Riper on Photography

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.

So out it went--in fact, we even jettisoned the 283 eventually, replacing it with a tiny yet remarkably versatile Metz flash unit, no larger than a pack of cigarettes.

In the old days a packed-to-the-gills Tamrac Rolling Strongbox would accompany our two carry-on camera bags -- and we would shoehorn the thing into the overhead while the camera bags were stowed beneath us. This last trip? Just one camera bag apiece. And the only photo item we packed in our checked luggage was a tiny Gitzo traveling tripod. [Note: Never, ever leave home on a serious photo trip without a tripod. Never.]

So there we were in Venice, from December 6th through January 7th, making pictures every day, but really just waiting for the water to rise. For three weeks it seemed as if we were going to be foiled again. Our Venetian friends sympathized, but what could they do? The high water boots that we kept stored in our rented apartment were out and ready for us on our return. Our landlord Jack even joked of leaving a bottle of high water in the fridge as a good luck omen.

Our Venetian photographer friend Mario Mazziol, who has made wonderful photos of Venice in all weather, tracked the internet for detailed forecasts, trolling for bad (i.e.: good for us) weather news. "I think there is no more high water this winter," Mario said sadly.

But things changed dramatically the day after Christmas. Whether Venice's unexpected high water was an adjunct of the devastating tsunami in the Pacific no one could say. If it was, it might have been the only salutary effect of that huge tragedy.

Our first warning came, not from the sirens at dawn, but from phone calls from friends. Mario, our friends Barbara, Giuseppe and Sergio, all called or relayed messages, trying to make sure that we did not miss the big one.

We didn't. We jumped out of bed, dressed quickly and donned our trusty boots. Or at least I did.

When Judy tried to get hers on she discovered to her horror that they were not her boots after all, but a pair of child's boots that had been left behind, apparently by mistake. There was no way in hell that Judy was going to miss this, and happily, I was able to scrounge a pair of our landlord's wellies so Judy could wear my boots, albeit with extra socks to take up the space.

Racing to the water bus, we made it down to Piazza San Marco in a chill and steady rain and saw to our delight that the famed plaza was indeed submerged.

It was a dismal, even dreadful, morning, but to us the day truly was a gift. We worked separate and apart, all by available light, using 400-speed T400CN and Ilford Delta 3200. Judy shot with two Nikons; I used two Leica M6 bodies, one of which I had borrowed and which had a great 21mm ultra wide angle lens that provided dramatic perspective.

It was as if the photo gods were making up for the previous six years. We shot throughout the morning, then went home to get out of our wet clothes and take a warm shower. The next day we had high water as well, but this time under fairly sunny skies. This gave us the great chance to make different pictures, not only in touristy San Marco, but in everyday shopping streets, in which Venetians went about their daily lives with amazing aplomb.

At one outdoor stall, specially set up near a shoe store to take advantage of the weather, Judy even was able to buy a pair of boots that fit her.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will once again teach his popular 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this fall and winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin September 22nd and February 15th respectively and run from 7pm to 10:30pm each week.

In addition, Frank will teach a one day, hands-on flash photography workshop, Saturday, October 1st, entitled "Flash Photography Demystified...or Flash is Your Friend (Honest.)"

In the documentary class students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the session. Students wishing to accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information on both the documentary course and flash workshop: 301-320-7757.

Frank Van Riper is Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His current book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website

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