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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Two Perspectives, One City

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

I have a great idea for a book: Get enough prominent photographers on board for a project that would explore variations on themes.

For example:

– Have first-rate portraitists independently photograph the same person in roughly the same setting and see how their different visions produce starkly different results. [The subject would have to agree not to say a word about how the previous photographers worked. Ideally, too, none of the photographers commissioned for the book would know who else was working on it.]

– Do the same thing with landscape shooters assigned to the same site, but with no restrictions as to time of day, season, equipment or angle of view. A riveting depiction of a particular place would be all that mattered.

– Offer identical objects to studio shooters and tell each to make the most original, blow-your-mind still life he or she can imagine. [Each picture would have to contain the same objects, but there would be no restriction on their prominence, lighting, arrangement, or how each object was physically treated.]

I haven't pursued this book idea, though someday I might. But it came to mind all over again earlier this year when Judy and I returned to Venice to continue work on our own book. This time it was a three-week stay and by the end of it we had shot loads of film, much of it involving people: street photography, portraiture, people at work.

Coincidentally at that time, our friend, colleague and neighbor Craig Sterling also was back in Venice with his wife Lesley for a week of photography during the Venetian winter. Given Craig's comparatively short shooting time, the four of us got together only once, for lunch, and promised to meet again back in the states.

Over dinner a few weeks after our return – and joined by DC photographer Peter Garfield and his wife Judy – we all ooh'd and ahh'd over each other's Venice pictures – and really meant it. It was thrilling to see how another shooter whose work both Judy and I admire tremendously used his eye and equipment to photograph this magical place, la bella Venezia. A sampling of the results my wife and I got compared with some of Craig's great images provided a textbook example of how different photographers see different things or the same things differently.

But first, some nuts and bolts as to technique.

Craig works almost exclusively in medium format Hasselblad; for this project Judy and I are working almost exclusively in 35mm – Nikon and Leica.

But the "almost" is important in both cases. Craig's main gun may be his tank-like Hassy and an assortment of super-sharp Zeiss lenses, but he has been known on occasion to make simply wonderful images with a plastic medium format Holga. (He also has begun playing with a pinhole attachment for his Hasselblad.)

Judy and I shot largely 35mm this trip, yet here again there were a number of factors in play. My reliance on 35mm was gradual, and not entirely voluntary. The much greater post-9/11 restrictions on carry-on luggage – and frankly the rebellion of my arthritic knees – forced me to abandon, first my Hasselblads (my 500C/M as well as my wonderful Superwide C/M), and later my rangefinder Mamiya 6, in favor of two 35mm cameras. My two were a Nikon F-100 with a 28-105 zoom, and a Leica M6 with a 35mm Summicron. (I also packed – and happily made some great stuff with – my own Holga, which weighs next to nothing and which takes up hardly any space in the camera bag.)

Judy shot with two Nikons, two zooms, as well as a 24mm wide.

All of us, Craig, Judy and I, shot similar, though by no means identical, bxw film: everything from Ilford's great Delta 3200, mostly for low light shots and interiors, to Agfa Pan 100 for drop-dead sharpness and tight, tight grain.

"Several years ago," Craig noted, "I used a lot of T-Max 100 and T-Max 400 (but) I always had a problem with the highlights....The past few years I developed a real affinity for Agfa Pan 100 developed in Rodinal 1:75. For faster film I shoot Ilford Delta 400 developed in Perceptol 1:2. Perceptol will lower your film speed to 200 (but) the highlights never blow out...It's a great film for night shooting."

With one exception, Judy and I have stuck to two films: Delta 3200, which I love for its low-light power and versatility, and Kodak's T400CN for its exposure latitude and incredibly tight grain. In previous trips, we also have used the (now-discontinued) 35mm Polaroid PolaPan black and white positive film. This quirky and delicate film (ISO 100) requires you to develop it in a separate little machine, which in turn produces a strip of positive images that will scratch in a heartbeat. But the pictures are wonderful, combining tight yet noticeable grain with excellent sharpness and shadow detail.

Still, equipment and film can do just so much. It's the eye and the brain using this gear that counts.

"I like to photograph recognizable objects, landscapes and structures," Craig said. "My goal is to show them in a different way...be it lighting or composition. I love structures, textures and light. Without sounding trite...'I want to arouse the senses and create a sense of place'. I like it when people say to me 'I know where that is, or I've seen that...but I never saw it like that before'"

This came home to me in spades with Craig's dramatic image of Venice's Church of San Rocco – a comparatively small white confection of a building that is close by the famous Scuola San Rocco, one of Venice's old artisan guilds that had supported good community works – as well as commissioned paintings from such superb artists as Tintoretto and Titian.

Look at how Craig got a keeper just by looking up!

The whiteness of the church contrasts dramatically with the moonlit night sky, and the moon itself provides a nice dot to the "i"of a gorgeous architectural landscape. I've seen may exterior shots of this well known church – but none as good or as full of feeling as this one.

By contrast, Judy's and my concentration at Rocco was on people in their surroundings – in this case the young men and women who were painstakingly restoring San Rocco to its former glory. As often is the case, access to a site that is "in restauro" was severely limited, but through a succession of phone calls and e-mails, and a little persistence and luck, we finally were allowed to shoot anywhere we pleased.

One of the pictures I'm happiest with is this one of mine of a handsome young man cleaning the top of one of the church's carved pillars with little more than a long Q-tip.

[Note: I really mean the top of a pillar. To make this available light shot I had to climb all the way up to the ceiling on what to me seemed like really rickety scaffolding. For this job I left my bulky Nikon SLR and lens with Judy and took up only my comparatively tiny Leica and its equally small lens. The camera and film combo was perfect: the Leica performed flawlessly and the Delta 3200 film captured everything I needed. But boy did I feel it in my hip the next day.]

If "magical" is an overused adjective when talking of Venice, there's a reason for that. The place simply seems so far removed from this century that much of it seems the result of a conjurer's trick. Granted, the magic grows fainter the closer you get to a Venetian McDonald's or to a high-tech Internet cafe.

Still, there is much to admire and to photograph.

Consider Craig's moody shot of the Grand Canal at dusk. The familiar ornate street lamps are in the foreground, while the magnificent dome of the Church of La Madonna Della Salute looms in the background. The whole scene is tied together by the Grand Canal – Venice's Main Street, Broadway and Pennsylvania Avenue.

Note, too, how the exposure and print are perfect – no detail is lost in the shadows; the highlights retain detail as well.

The composition itself is gorgeous, and the picture is...magical.

For another kind of magic, let me close with Judy's fantastic picture of a mask maker in her shop. As Judy recalls, the artist was giving a lesson to the women on the right. Look closely and it seems as if the mask being worked on is a mirror of the onlooker's face. Note, too, how your perspective is skewed by the wealth of masks and ornaments that engulf the two women. You know better, but it appears as if they are floating in a fantastical scene of masks and images.

But, then, Venice is like that.

Note: See more of Craig Sterling's work at www.craigsterling.com

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

©Craig Sterling
Craig Sterling's nighttime image of Venice's Church of San Rocco shows the grandeur of this confection-like building contrasted with a dramatic night sky. Sometimes when hunting for great images it helps simply to look up.

©Frank Van Riper
By contrast, Judy and I concentrated on the people who were restoring the church inside. In this picture, a young man works painstakingly to clean the top of an ornate carved column.

©Craig Sterling
Scenes like these reinforce Venice's reputation as a magical place. Craig Sterling's mastery as a printer comes through as well, with detail visible in all parts of the image, from dark to light.

©Judith Goodman
My wife Judy made this shot almost on the fly, as we wandered Venice's narrow streets. A mask maker is giving a lesson, but the scene itself – shot through glass amid a wealth of masks and ornaments – also becomes a magical fantasy of shapes.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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