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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Telefonini and Carciofi for All!!

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

On every one of our extended stays in Venice to work on our next book Judy and I have spent a fair amount of time at the wonderful open-air markets that not only provide great photo opportunities, but also feature all kinds of produce we never can get at home.

Even at our fanciest market in Washington, for example, there often is only one kind of radicchio to be had. In Venice, it's not unusual to see several kinds right next to each other. The same goes for arugula. In the States the closest we can come to getting artichoke hearts (in Italy they're called carciofi) is the marinated kind in a glass jar. That's fine as far as it goes, but contrast that with a guy wielding an incredibly sharp knife, slicing them tender and fresh for you before your eyes – all the while singing the praises of his goods ("Car-chee-OH!!-fee") with operatic gusto.

Sure beats the hell out of the Safeway.

For all of their problems with the euro, inflation, and other mundane things, the Italians and many of their fellow Europeans seem to have a better appreciation than we have of the things that make life enjoyable or at least more livable. That includes everything from vegetables to pay toilets. In that vein, of citing one case and contrasting it with a better one – and with New Year's fast approaching – let me offer, not a list a resolutions for 2002, but a list of "how comes," both photographic and non-photographic for the coming year. For example:

– How come when I'm in Europe and using the cell phone I had to buy over there (because the one I use in the States is of course useless in Italy and everywhere else overseas) the sound is so much better than on the hotsy totsy new Cingular wireless model that I use here? I dumped my previous US cell phone because I listened to all those ads about better sound quality. Sure, the slick new model improved things some, but damned if that European one is the best yet. I thought we were the ones who were supposed to be ahead of the game on all this. And we know it's not the equipment, which is all but identical here and there, but the service provided for the equipment that makes your calls in the States sound like they're coming through a rain barrel.

Interestingly, in Venice especially, the cell phone – ortelefonino – rules. Everyone has one, or seems to have one, from the little old lady on the vaporetto, to the slick dude with the $200 shades and tight black slacks. Why? For the simple reason that getting a landline installed in the stunning yet crumbling opera set that is Venice is such a pain that most folks choose to go cellular. I found this out on one of our earlier trips when I told the owner of the apartment we were renting that I hoped to bring over my laptop and use his phone line to check my e-mail.

But he had no phone, much less a phone line, just a cell phone. [You literally cannot walk for five minutes in Venice without seeing, or hearing, several telefoniniin use.] Which also is why Internet cafes have flourished there, and why they can be comparatively civilized places. One that I frequent near the Accademia Bridge features a good 40 monitors, all state of the art, and has just added a nice cafe right next to the computers. Sort of log-on and latte.

– How come, if black and white photography is becoming so popular again, it's tough to find a decent lab that will process it? Around here, in the DC area, it's a crapshoot when going to any of the local one-hour places. Sometimes you get blank stares. In almost all cases, the film has to be sent away to who knows where. And heaven forbid that you should do something as esoteric as push Tri-X to 1600 and require "special" handling. Of course, first-rate custom labs like Chrome, Inc. in Georgetown, StarLab in Bethesda and Black and White in Arlington, handle all manner of black and white film all the time. But it's a far cry from the days when you could bring bxw film to any drugstore and have your film processed on site by someone who knew what he or she was doing.

– How come they haven't yet come up with a digital/film camera? I know folks are working on the idea. I just think now is the time to unveil it. The people who said digital would be the death of film are the same kind of short-sighted souls who said that television would kill radio and that photography would kill painting. Digital photography and film photography are going to co-exist for many many years for a number of different reasons, each method letting photographers expand their vision in different ways. A camera that lets one choose digital or "analog" (film), or ideally both at once, would be a great tool that also would provide a built-in second way to archive one's work.

– How come we Americans grab a sandwich and a diet Coke at mid-day, wolf it down and hurry back to work, while the Europeans literally shut down for two or three hours to enjoy a real meal?

Spare me the "we are the gung-ho, get it done yesterday Yanks" theory. We are talking quality of life here. In Venice, Judy and I had to work around the fact that the excellent and very efficient lab we used to soup our film shut down every day from around 12:30 to 3:30. Daniele, the owner, in all likelihood went home during that time and sat down to a several course meal with his wife. I haven't the faintest idea who cooked, since Daniele and his wife worked together in the shop. Maybe they traded off. Who knows? What I do know is that they had the time to unwind and relax before re-opening every afternoon, and staying open until around 7 or 8 every night.

Another thing: when wandering around Venice's wonderful neighborhoods, you are aware of something almost unheard of here anymore: public bathrooms. Spotlessly clean, well lit and staffed by an attendant, these are not the hangouts for thugs and perverts that prompted the demise of these facilities here. [It's one reason DC's otherwise terrific subway system decided against public toilets.] What is interesting to me is that many of the Venetian facilities are privately owned, which means they must be profitable. It costs to use the facility: 1,000 lire, or about fifty cents per visit.

Take it from this wandering photographer: there's nothing that so improves one's picture taking as composing an image on a blessedly empty bladder. And that happiness is worth fifty cents anytime.

On that gentle note: Happy New Year!!

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.

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