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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Eyeball Exercise

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

A potential wedding client was leaving our home recently after seeing our work. She liked our wedding pictures fine, but she really enthused about our upcoming trip to Venice. And since she was in the documentary photography field herself (a filmmaker for a major cable channel) she knew right away the happy situation in which I in particular now find myself.

Doing all the research and prep work, she said – that's so much fun.

While "fun" may not be the exact word I would use to describe the hours of reading – and looking – I am doing as Judy and I prepare for our fifth trip to the floating city to continue work on a book, most if not all of what I am doing is exhilarating and, I believe, absolutely necessary. If one is serious about a photography project and not just hoping to take a few memorable snaps during an exotic trip, serious preparation is mandatory – while failing to do so is simply foolhardy.

The book on Venice that Judy and I are working on will be my fifth, as well as the first real book of photography on which Judy and I have collaborated. [Years ago, we made photographs for a children's book called A Child's Organic Garden, but the images were little more than record shots of a little girl planting her garden so the book is not one that we list in our credits or tend to brag about. The fact that the photo reproduction in the US edition was dreadful didn't help things any. The Australian edition was gorgeous, but copies of those books are even harder to find than the crummy American ones.]

Still, the disappointment with that project taught me to be a bear about the quality of printing in my subsequent books – an important, if painful, learning experience.

This time around, the Venetian learning curve is steep for a number of reasons.

First, who needs another book about Venice? Granted, there are scores and scores of them, and I've probably read or thumbed through most, especially the ones centered on photography. My feeling here is simple: if you do not believe as an artist that you can contribute something better than what has gone before, you are wasting your time. But if you honestly believe (as I always do) that what you are doing is worthy and new, you owe it to yourself to go for it.

Second, a book "on Venice" is like a book "on life." The subject is dauntingly broad. There have been nonfiction books on cooking in Venice, glassblowing in Venice, architecture in Venice, living in Venice, literature and film in Venice, etc., etc. – as well as any number of novels on love, marriage, intrigue and, of course, death in Venice. For practical and artistic reasons, Judy and I decided five years ago to limit our book to Winter in Venice, and to focus our view on largely available-light documentary and street photography in black and white when the city is not overrun by tourists. These photographs of people, on the street and in their homes, will be interspersed with a precious handful of architectural and scenic pictures to provide context and points of reference. I will write an introductory essay, as well as a few pieces within the body of the book on general themes and impressions.

Though one might assume that literary research is helpful mainly to a writer, in fact, book-learning has been a huge help in planning our photography. A simple case in point: from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice" to Garry Wills' Venice the Lion City, one cannot help but notice the influence on Venetian life of its Jewish population. In fact, the term "ghetto" originated there and in previous centuries Jews were treated comparatively better in Venice than in other parts of the world.

This research, as well as visits to the historic Venetian ghetto itself and to the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Lido, prompted an almost inevitable desire to reflect Jewish life in Venice today. A few inquiries in my halting Italian led me to Rabbi Elia Richetti, who last year graciously allowed Judy and me to photograph him teaching Hebrew class to a group of young boys and girls. I am hoping this time around to interview the rabbi about his own life in Venice.

In both literary and photographic research I am a believer in total immersion if for no other reason than that it helps you "think" in the medium you are investigating. I concede this is not traditional scholarship, of the type that PhD candidates do – with careful note-taking, cross-referencing and indexes. With the Venice project, for example, I think that mysteries by the likes of Michael Dibdin, Andrea Camilleri and Donna Leon are every bit as useful in helping me discover the rhythms and color of Italian life as are the drier, if more erudite, tomes by Garry Wills and John Ruskin.

It's also the reason I love to read Italian cookbooks and, when I am able, Italian newspapers and magazines (often with a pocket dictionary at hand.)

A similar total immersion in photography books on Venice has an obvious practical side: to avoid duplication of someone else's work. Seeing books filled with less-than-stellar work may give one a feeling of satisfaction, even superiority, about one's own project, but these books should be cast aside quickly as mere temporary enjoyments, in favor of the books that provide a sudden, not-always-pleasant, punch in the creative gut.

Of the scores of books on Venice that Judy and I have seen, only one has given us pause and triggered envy. Gunter Derleth's Venice: Camera Obscura is a gorgeous collection of black and white pinhole camera images that often replicate what Judy and I hope to offer in our book. Derleth simply has set the bar higher for us. His wonderfully moody architectural images now are a challenge for us to meet and, hopefully, to surpass.

Still, there are no people in Derleth's pictures and Judy and I love to show life. And that is why, as I exercise my eyeballs for the next trip to Serenissima, I keep coming back to the work of Gianni Berengo Gardin, without doubt one of the greatest photographers I ever have seen.

Berengo Gardin is now in his 70s and appears to be little known outside of Europe, or even Italy. [I say this with some confidence only because a Google search on his name comes back with everything in Italian.] I was introduced to his remarkable work a few years ago by Sergio Volpe, a young bookseller near the Rialto Bridge. The book Gli Italiani ("Italians") is a thick compendium of 50 years of Berengo Gardin's work throughout Italy and contains some of the best documentary and street photography ever. And I say this as a huge fan of Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Gary Winogrand.

Now, as our departure for Venice approaches, I find myself thumbing more and more through this great photographer's work, absorbing it, immersing myself in it.

Not to copy, but to emulate.

Consider this: Art Tatum was a piano jazz virtuoso whose keyboard dexterity was so vast listeners assumed the sound they heard on his records could not have been made by one man – yet it was, in those days before multiple track recording.

So great was Tatum's influence on his fellow musicians that, as noted in Ken Burns' landmark documentary on the birth of Jazz in America, "he was always there when[ever musicians] thought of improvising."

And so will photographers like Gianni Berengo Gardin be there, in the back of my mind in Venice, each time I lift a camera to my eye in the most beautiful city in the world.

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
Just a sampling of the many and varied books I am reading as we prepare the final phase of photography for our book on Venice in Winter. Everything provides material and context: from Gianni Berengo Gardin's brilliant bxw street photography to Italian thrillers by Michael Dibdin and others.


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

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