A hardy perennial in DC is a trip out of town to photograph the Washington area's brilliant fall foliage. During a recent camera club meeting that I attended as a lecturer and competition judge, it was announced that special permission had been obtained to let members gather and photograph in the historic and ornate Pension Building downtown.
Still another favorite is the National Arboretum a gorgeous public garden right in the city that has provided countless photographers with nature shots, including the inevitable close-ups of flowers.
Last November, however, while my wife Judy and I were in Italy to continue work on our book about Venice in winter, we managed to take part in a different kind of photography excursion one that had a lot more appeal to us than one to photograph the autumn leaves.
The Venetian Photographic Society, La Gondola (Il Circolo Fotografico La Gondola, Venezia) had decided to mount a future exhibition of its members' work documenting life on the Venetian Island of La Giudecca, across the canal from the Zattere, and, as it happens, where Il Circolo has its weekly meetings. The endeavor would mean that different members would shoot different things perhaps some would concentrate on architecture, others on shops and stores.
Our friend Mario Mazziol, however, would bar-hop.
And, if you knew Mario, as outgoing a photographer as you ever were likely to meet, you knew immediately that this was a perfect fit.
So when Mario invited Judy and me to accompany him, we jumped at the chance.
I know: to many photographers, especially those just venturing into so-called street photography, or journalistic, or documentary photography, the prospect of approaching strangers and ohmigod! photographing them, is daunting. Hence, the preference for artsy abstracts of shadows on buildings and close-ups of flowers. [The other alternative shooting people surreptitiously with a long lens may work a time or two but can't compare with what I'm about to describe.]
To me, people photography is what photography is all about. It took me years to grow as good as it as I wanted to be, but, surprisingly, it was not nearly as difficult as I thought to actually approach strangers and photograph them.
Think of the last time you waded into the water, shivering and fearful, only to say the hell with it and plunge in. After the initial shock and fibrillation, it wasn't nearly as bad as you thought. It's that way the first time you try to photograph strangers.
"I don't ask people to pose," Mario declared. "I speak, I talk to the people; I try to put them in an easy way [i.e.: put them at ease.] And if they ask me what I want the pictures for, I answer that I want to show them to other people. I tell them that their life and their way of life are interesting to other people..."
That's pretty much it in a nutshell. The key to the whole thing is engagement.
Even simple body language helps. I can recall any number of times walking the streets of Venice in search of pictures when Judy or I would see people doing things that might make a picture. In our case something as simple as a smile or a chuckle at, say, the dog or the kids, or whatever, would signal our good intentions and smooth the way for us to work.
I mean it. Try it. After all, put yourself in the subject's place: would you be more comfortable if Mr. Macho Photojournalist, in full photo vest and multi-SLR's, blustered up to you and immediately started taking pictures, unspeaking and intense, as if you were a lab animal without any apparent feelings, or any need to be included in what actually is a transaction?
And in public places, though there is no real need to formally ask for permission to shoot, a congenial, non-threatening presence will take you much farther than any telephoto lens.
[One note here about the work of photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson. It is likely that he rarely made much of an impact on his subjects he is known for capturing The Decisive Moment surreptitiously, and being barely any presence at all. It helped that he always worked by available light and with a whisper-quiet Leica rangefinder camera that he often kept concealed in the crook of his arm. But remember, too: H C-B, like so many other such greats, including Garry Winogrand, Gianni Berengo Gardin and others, also worked up close. Often their favorite Leica lenses were the medium wide 35mm and the "normal" 50mm. As a result they usually were no more than a few yards from their subjects when they worked. There simply is no getting around it: in this kind of photography closer is better.]
In fact, there was one time in Venice last year when Judy and I proved this point, at least in terms of getting the better picture.
We were strolling in a small campo near our apartment when we saw an old man sitting outside a restaurant holding a tiny dog in his lap. A wonderful scene. We both made the picture but in this case Judy shot from further back, probably unbeknownst to the man. And, in fairness, she did want to include more of the background in the shot.
I remember muttering something to her like "that's not the picture," then approaching the man.
"Mi scusi, signore," I said, gesturing to my Leica, "un foto con il cane, per favore?"
There was a barely perceptible nod to his head and he posed for me, hardly changing expression. I filled the frame with him and his little dog, and it turned out to be the keeper: a charming shot.
"Often," Mario Mazziol says, "the photographer is held [to be] one who disturbs one who wants to take things. I want to give serenity instead; I want to make [people] to understand that I ask to photograph not for disturbing, but to be a friend, an accomplice of their daily activity."
And so it was on that day on La Giudecca.
We started around ten in the morning. Happily, bars in Europe also serve espresso and cappuccino, so we didn't have to start right in on beer and wine (Note: simple courtesy says if you are going to try to work in someone's establishment, at least buy something.) Mario started right in, chatting up the barman/barista at the first place we entered. As we sipped our coffees, the man said in effect, sure shoot all you want. There was only one old gentleman in the place at the time, sitting by himself at a table, his nose literally buried in his newspaper. Having made our presence known to the proprietor, neither Mario, Judy nor I tried to engage the older man, since to do so surely would have broken his intensity. We each made our pictures, trying as best we could not to disturb him. If the man was aware of us, he did not show it.
Admittedly, in cases like these, Mario noted afterward, "I feel that I am doing some things without having the authorization to do it. But at the end of the day, the photographer must also be a thief, inevitably."
But again, if we simply had bounded in, shooting up the joint, as it were, the barman likely would have thrown us out. Instead, there were "ciao"s all around as we exited.
Over the course of the day, we hit several bars, cafes and trattorie. And in each case Judy and I followed along in Mario's gregarious wake. The simple fact is that people most often are flattered that you want to take their picture, especially if you approach them with respect, and certainly if you don't give the impression that you are an artiste out slumming.
In fact, the only time that day when we couldn't shoot or at least when the barman said he didn't think it would be a good idea was at that first place, where the old man was reading the paper, when Mario asked if we also could shoot in a smoke-filled inner room where men were clustered around slot machines.
But that was no problem. We got plenty of shots of the same thing later at a different bar.
For me, the best shot of the day actually came outside a bar and Judy nailed it.
As we walked along the promenade, the beautiful Giudecca canal to our right, we saw a cluster of men chatting and laughing. In the middle of the group was a very old fellow in a wheelchair, who was laughing just as hard. This time I did the talking, asking if we all could make a picture. Immediately the group surrounded the old guy for a wonderful inter-generational portrait of friends.
That picture itself was fine, and each of us shot a version of it, but Judy also waited till that session broke up and made a simply wonderful picture of the men caught in a warm and beautifully composed tableau of friendship and laughter.
[To see more of Mario Mazziol's work, go to www.mazziol.it]
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.