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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Venetian Formula: Go Slow, Stay Sane

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Who's the guy who said "getting there is half the fun"? I need to talk to him.

We're back! Our month-long trip to Venice was everything Judy and I could have hoped for: great experiences, great food and, most important, great pictures. Granted, the flight over was an adventure, combining cramped seating with inadequate storage space – not to mention an Italian air controller's strike. But once that little bit of business was over, virtually everything else about the trip was splendid. We shot just under 150 rolls of film, virtually all of it black and white, and are confident that we are well on our way to producing a wonderful book about the most beautiful city in the world.

Off and on over the coming weeks, I'll try to give you a taste of what this ambitious month of location photography entailed, from finding a place to stay to getting film processed abroad. Though I'm happy that much of our planning paid off, and that my hunches about many things were correct, Judy and I learned a lot on this trip. What we did right I'll pass on. What we did wrong, you can learn from.

The trip over, on Lufthansa, could have been better, and now I know a couple of things. We were traveling coach (not having enough air miles yet to upgrade to business class) and wound up stuck in the middle four-seat section of a 747 for the long overnight first leg of our trip, from Dulles International to Frankfurt. Not only is this middle section the pits, but I discovered to my dismay that the overheard bins for this part of the plane are smaller than those for the side seats. As a result, even though it was made for precisely this purpose, my rolling Tamrac camera case, (containing valuable, delicate cameras and lenses, as well as film) would not fit into the overhead. I braced myself for arguing with the stews that there was no way I could check this valuable bag in the hold. Happily, though, they let me stow the bag behind a bulkhead seat just a few rows away. (On our return trip a month later, I made sure we had side seats, and the case fit into the overhead bin just fine.)

We took off from Dulles a half-hour late and because we were not able to make up this time we landed in Frankfurt just as our connecting flight to Venice was leaving. (Another warning: our travel agent had booked us flights just 50 minutes apart – a bad idea, especially on international flights where you not only are at the mercy of delays but sometimes have to walk miles to your connection. Next time I will insist on anywhere from a 60- to 90-minute cushion, even if I have to cool my heels at the gate waiting for the next plane.)

Normally in a case like this, Judy and I would have hopped the next flight to Venice, at 12:20, but this day the Italian air traffic controllers decided to go on strike. Not a big strike, you understand, just a four-hour hiccup in the schedule, from noon to 4 p.m. And that meant, as we stood in Frankfurt shortly after 8 in the morning, that we were stuck there until after 5, when the first post-strike Venice flight was scheduled to leave. Making the best of this, I talked our way into Lufthansa's business class lounge and there Judy and I passed the day, trying to catnap in the easy chairs while I made phone calls to let our landlord know we'd be late. It could have been a lot worse: At least the refreshments, including good coffee, cookies, wine and German beer, were free.

Finally, after dark we made it to Marco Polo airport, hopped a water taxi and rode through the Venetian night to our apartment. Or more precisely, to the San Stae vaporetto stop in the sestiere of Santa Croce, where, at that lighted dockside water bus kiosk, the lone figure of Danilo the caretaker, waited to greet us and take us to our apartment. It was from this point on that our Venetian adventure went from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Unless you are independently wealthy, staying at a hotel for a trip of this length is crazy. Judy and I had to rent an apartment. But how to go about it? The Internet doubtless would have been a great resource and, in fact, proved to be very helpful to me after we had made some initial contacts. But in our case, we found the perfect place the old-fashioned way: through printed classified ads and the timely advice of a colleague.

Judith Martin, the Washington Post columnist best known to her legions of readers as Miss Manners, also is an ardent "Venezia-phile," who, with her husband Bob, has been visiting Venice for years. Arguably the best bit of advice we got for the entire trip was from Judith: take out a classified ad in the New York Review of Books. And so I did.

"Photographer/writer seeks apartment in Venice for one month, mid-January to mid-February..." read the ad, and even before it ran, I had found in this literate journal at least two live prospects for places to rent.

Ultimately we settled on a place offered by someone responding to our ad. It was a restored two-story former fisherman's dwelling, with two bedrooms, two baths, radiant heat in the ground floor (to fight the perennial bane of Venice: rising damp) as well as a brand new kitchen, all for a very reasonable price. Located in a tiny courtyard with the unlikely name Corte del Diavolo, the apartment was within walking distance of the famed Rialto Bridge but still far enough from the tourist spots to be in a real neighborhood, where Judy and I could do our daily shopping and feel almost like locals (though anyone listening to my Italian would hardly have made that assumption). The place – and, for that matter, our landlord and his wife – could not have been more simpatico.

So we made it over to Venice, got settled in to our digs and, after a delicious meal at a local trattoria, where I had one of my favorites, linguini with squid ink, Judy and I collapsed into bed.

The next morning, and every morning for the next month, we would plot our day over breakfast and figure what pictures we wanted to make. One day Judy might want to do some nighttime shots of the Rialto Bridge; another time I'd want to do the same in St. Mark's. Both of us shot a ton of film on the Lido, and of the desolate beach in winter. Before our trip was done, we made numerous portraits of everyday people, including a master shoemaker, a furniture restorer, a paper maker, a Carnevale mask maker, as well as the wonderfully friendly members of the vigili del fuoco, the Venetian fire department. And each day too we did roll after roll of black and white street photography, all by available light.

Venice obviously is a walking city, and therefore has its own slower, saner pace. It took us a while to get used to the fact that many businesses simply shut their doors from 1 to 4 p.m., for a civilized lunch and midday rest, before reopening until 7 or 8 in the evening.

Even the public transportation is slower. The vaporetti, the water buses, lumber along the Grand Canal at an almost regal pace, yet they will get you just about anywhere, fairly inexpensively.

This is a city that seeps into your psyche. If Venice suffers from rising damp, the rising warmth of its beauty and of its pace of life makes up for it.

It is not for nothing that it once was called La Serenissima: the most serene republic.

Next week: Death (and Love) in Venice: Photographing two funerals and a wedding.

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 fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Piazza San Marco, Venice's "front door."

©Frank Van Riper
Gondolas at rest.

©Frank Van Riper
Winter Sunset / Venice.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

Preparing for Venice

Great Photography Books: A Dinner Table Debate

Cuba: Taking Strong Exception

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Can Improve Your Pix

Pat Fisher's Stamp of Approval

The Frustrating Genius of Edward Steichen

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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