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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Again in Search of Acqua Alta

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Dear Judy & Frank,

I took the attached picture from the kitchen window just now, a couple of minutes after 8 in the morning. I have a bit of a flu so that I did not want to go outside and get a clearer picture, but the dark patch under the vault is water. Yesterday there was even more and many people were going about in boots (including me, but mainly because of the torrential rain). Saint Mark's square was flooded, but that is easy. Rialto Bridge you could not see where the canal ended and the side walk began. Promises well for your stay!

The kids love it here. The "Venice effect" even got hold on them, too, and they took a nap yesterday afternoon. They never do, not even in Puglia.

Best wishes,


The e-mail came from our landlord in Italy.

Jack and his wife Chiara live in the mountains of Trento with their two kids. They have a summer place in Puglia and a lovely pied a terre in Venice, which we have rented several times over the years during our work on a book about Venice in Winter.

It's a lovely apartment, we obviously love Venice – the most beautiful and romantic city in the world – and we are thrilled that, over the past five years, Judy and I have produced some of the finest photography of our lives – which also makes it a hell of a lot easier for me to write lyrical accompanying text.

But it also is beyond denying that any book about Venice in winter – at least any book that purports to document la vita Veneziana – must include (to my mind anyway) photographs of high water, or acqua alta, when the low-lying streets of the city flood and when tourists and locals alike walk on yard-high narrow boardwalks to navigate the ancient streets and even at times the famed Piazza San Marco.

It has gotten to be something of a joke to the many people in Venice whom we have come to know during our project. Invariably, they ply us with tales of how lousy the weather was right before we arrived. It has gotten to the point that some of our friends seem to look forward to our frequent returns, not because they are delighted to see us, but because it promises that the sun will come out.

A previous November trip was a good case in point.

Calculating as best I could from the arcane Calendario Mareo which lists high and low tides for the year, Judy and I scheduled a long Venetian sojourn, that also would include La Festa Della Salute – a great local festival commemorating the end of a plague in the 1600s. (Americans tend to have 'festivals' to mark things like Independence Day or when their teams win the Super Bowl.)

We arrived in plenty of time to make great pix during Salute, but we just missed high water. [To give you an idea of how much we want this, we even have two pair of rubber boots stashed in the Venice apartment, waiting for us.]

"You should have been here last week," a number of friends said helpfully.

A similar thing happened last January, when we spent three (acqua alta-free) weeks in Venice. After flying all night we landed at Marco Polo Airport and were taking a water taxi to the apartment. It actually had snowed a little bit earlier and, during the taxi ride, we passed a small barge transporting huge wine casks that now were nicely snow-covered. Good pic, I thought, but I'll wait till we get settled then go out and make some really first-rate snow pix.

No dice. It all had melted by the time we set out to shoot.

In truth, Judy and I have had our share of wretched weather in Venice – and have made scores of gorgeously atmospheric images, especially on foggy, damp, chilly nights when most people in their right minds are home wrapping themselves around a nice big bicchiere of red wine and a steaming bowl of linguine with squid ink. (Trust me, it's wonderful.)

But, as often as we have been to Venice in winter, we have not been there when the "perfect" confluence of high tide and stormy rainy weather has caused the lagoon to overflow its banks.

One reason I am so anxious to document this weather phenomenon, which occurs most frequently in winter, but which also seems to be happening there at other times of the year, is that, hopefully, the problem may be on its way to being solved.

Though Venetians literally wade through high water with aplomb, a rising tide in "the floating city" has taken a terrible toll on its magnificent buildings. It's really not true that Venice is sinking (although, for a number of explainable reasons, its sandy foundation is compressing.) The real threat is that the water is rising – due, some believe, to global warming, as well as to imprudent dredging of the lagoon decades ago to allow huge container ships to use the Venetian port of Marghera. The dredging, it is said, created deeper channels that also allow surging tidal waters more opportunity to gather strength and to overflow.

For whatever reason, rising water means that, for many buildings, the water level now is above the level of the impervious Istrian marble that canny Venetian builders used centuries ago as a base for their glorious palazzi and other great structuress. Once the water reaches far more porous building materials above, capillary action creates a kind of wet architectural cancer that can eat at the buildings from within unless they are carefully (and expensively) cared for.

After decades of debate, the Italian government finally has approved a controversial plan (which after much research and soul-searching I support) that will install a number of mammoth hydraulically-powered gates in the Venetian lagoon that will create an underwater barrier to surging water at high tide. The gates, called Project Moses, are supposed to impede, though not block, the water to lessen its effect and therefore thwart acqua alta.

It's not like we are racing a deadline to make high water pix before the gates ruin it for us. The project will take years. Frankly, I just want to shoot high water and be done with it.

And, in fact, that's what I hope Judy and I are doing right now.

As you read this we are in Venice. Just for giggles (or Googles) click on the weather for Venice and see what it says. If the weather gods are with us this time, you will see cloudy skies, rain and chilly or cold temps. If the curse of Frank and Judy still holds, you'll see nothing but sun.

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.

©Frank Van Riper
What do you do while waiting for lousy weather in Venice? You wander the outskirts of this magical place on yet another sunny day and shoot whatever you see. In this case, I saw this wonderfully rickety soccer stadium and loved the way the verticals of the two large trees intersected with the horizontal grid of the grandstand. I shot the scene in 35mm, but the keeper was the shot I made here, with a tiny, crummy, plastic Holga camera, the plastic lens of which created a nice soft effect around the edges. The square format also lent a formality to the shot that I liked.


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

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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A Troubled Genius Frozen in Time

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