Italians usually can turn any holiday into an excuse to eat, drink, sing and laugh. And in Venice this movable holiday feast includes a modern reincarnation of Carnevale, the centuries-old celebration (and sometimes near bacchanal) in which locals used to put on masks and shed their inhibitions during a week-long blowout before the meatless fast days of Lent.
(Carnevale, by the way, literally means "farewell to meat," or carne vale in Latin. The English word "carnival" denotes a happy time or place, but without the meatless overtones.)
In Venice Carnevale usually occurs around the third week in February, bringing a festive air to what can be a pretty wet and gloomy time in that northern Italian city. When Judy and I first experienced this benign craziness in 1998 when I led a Carnevale photo tour we used a number of photographic techniques to capture not only the merriment but the mystery and magic of a city that is a living opera set.
Basically, we had to be ready to photograph anything or anyone at any time which is a good rule to follow as we enter the happy annual confluence of Christmas, Hanukah and Kwanzaa.
My mother, the former Carmella Casullo she changed her name to Millie as soon as she could had a ton of relatives in New Jersey when I was young, so our Christmas usually involved taking the train to Asbury Park and spending the holidays with them. I didn't realize then how insidious Mom's influence was on me as she took pictures of every family gathering and event. Still, for all the formal, around-the-table pictures my mother made, I think back to the ones she missed.
I would love, for example, to have had pictures of my Aunt Lu my godmother making zeppole, the honey-covered Italian fritters that my father so looked forward to every year.
Or pictures of me helping my cousins Rosie and Eleanor roll out huge sheets of pasta dough for ravioli that we then carried up to the bedroom draped over a long wooden dowel and let dry on a clean white sheet before bringing the whole thing back to the kitchen table where, with inverted water glasses, we cut out the rounds to make those succulent, cheese-filled, pasta pillows.
Or pictures of my aunt Dot sitting at an enamel-top table covered with hard dry lentil beans, inspecting each one with her deft, fast-moving hands as she weeded out any that were less than perfect for her wonderful lentil soup.
For that matter, it would have been fun to have had a shot of me as a very young boy tasting for the first time spaghettini alle vongole, with the traditional clam-based red sauce that my family always served at Christmas. (I hated it. It seemed at the time an awful thing to do to pasta making it taste like fish, not meatballs. I since have come around.)
If the holidays offer a wealth of set piece pictures, think also how all these preparatory scenes offer equally numerous possibilities. These are the pictures that are the brick and mortar of everyday life and it is these that really capture the companionship of family and friends coming together.
For example: around the dinner table, sure, take one of everyone turning toward you and smiling. But I'll tell you: when we shoot a wedding, table pictures like these are something Judy and I try to avoid. Why? Because the better pictures come afterward, during dinner, when people are talking in twos and threes, laughing, gesturing unselfconscious and unaware of the camera.
But, of course, this is a time for set piece shots also. Over the next few days the most obvious one might be a shot of the Christmas tree. Here, changing technique, not style, might help you.
Most on-camera-flash pictures of gaily-lit trees tend to look lifeless and flat because the camera usually is set to the highest shutter speed the flash will allow, to minimize camera shake indoors. But when I photograph trees I always use a tripod and augment a flash burst (to add light to the room) with a seconds-long exposure to further bring up the room light and to make the tree lights really glow. For these pictures, I use daylight-balanced film since my flash offers the equivalent of outdoor light to mix with the warmer light of indoors. But fine tree pictures also can be made without flash, though a tripod is even more of a must. These available light pictures can be made either with tungsten film (balanced for indoor incandescent lights and ornaments) or, with daylight film, by placing a cooling blue filter over your camera lens to keep everything from going too "warm" or orange in the final print. Note: this problem can be color-corrected by the lab via a custom print, but my way is more foolproof and less expensive.
Still, for all the care I've taken in photographing Christmas trees and outdoor lights over the years, some of the coolest shots I've made came when I broke the rules.
Camera shake? Who cares? One year I made a long, handheld exposure of our tree, and moved the camera in a circular motion near the end of the shot. In the print, the tree lights created bright round circles against a dark background, and turned the tree into a colorful, abstract, tree-shaped "drawing." I liked the shot so much it became our Christmas card image the following year.
For Judy and me, the holidays are an odd mix. As commercial photographers, it's a very busy time for us: events, weddings, portraits not to mention our own gatherings with family and friends. You can bet, for example, that I made a ton of shots as we helped decorate our son and daughter-in-law's tree, with help from grandkids Max, Eliot and Anna. But by Christmas morning we love the quiet time, when Judy and I can exchange gifts by ourselves, around a roaring fire in the living room and listen to the welcome silence of the phone not ringing. There'll be plenty of time to get into the swing of things later in the day. And we are booked to work New Year's Eve, the traditional end of the holiday season.
Only this time, like the Italians, Judy and I have extended the holidays.
We're returning to Venice in mid-January for a month of picture taking for our next book. More on that adventure in future columns.
Meanwhile, from both of us Happy Holidays!
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.