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Venice and Lubec: The Obvious (?) Parallels

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Lubec, Me. – Truth to tell, the parallels between Lubec, Maine, which figures prominently in my previous photography book, and Venice Italy, the subject of my next one, may not jump immediately to mind.

Take coffee, for example. A mundane thing, to be sure, but to someone like me (an ex-reporter who pumps the stuff into his veins each day before he can work) a good cup of joe is molto importante, as we say on the Grand Canal.

Don't look for a first rate cup of the stuff in Lubec – though, in fairness, things are improving. What comes off the back burner there too often is boiled and stale (this happened to me just the other day), while the more expensive "boutique" coffee in those pump-it-yourself vacuum jugs at the convenience stores is just too damn weak.

But in Venice, even the most mundane single espresso is a work if art: steaming, black, strong enough to put hair on your chest, and topped with the telltale crema that marks a first-rate job by the barista. [Starbucks please note: hardly any of your folks who slings espresso in my other hometown, Washington, DC, gets this last bit right.]

As for something more complicated, like a latte, fuggheddabahdit. The nearest latte in my section of Down East Maine (Washington County) is in Machias, 45 minutes away by car. And during the rare times I've been desperate enough to ask for one there, the pained expression on the face of the poor woman behind the counter suggests I have asked her to paint my house.

Too, Lubec is a tiny, fairly anonymous town where every day is casual Friday, while Venice has been world-renowned for centuries as a hub of style and beauty.

So you'd be forgiven to think it a bit of stretch to draw parallels between the easternmost town in the US – a tiny fishing village whose closest neighbor is Campobello, New Brunswick – and Venice, Italy, arguably the most beautiful, most romantic, city in the world.

But it's a stretch I am willing to make. Did make, in fact, when my wife Judy and I gave an evening talk recently at the Lubec Memorial Library about our current project: Serenissima: Venice in Winter, our first joint photography book, and one that we've been working on for the past five years.

And, in the final analysis, that "stretch" probably says volumes about the love and affection Judy and I feel for both places, disparate though they actually may be.

In fact, I had planned to start our library talk by citing the parallels between Venice and Lubec in jest, but I soon hit on enough of them to say to myself: "you know, there really ARE parallels between the two."

Far-fetched? You be the judge.

First, I give you fog. Either place could be forgiven for claiming to have invented it. In fact, when Judy and I first were looking for property to buy in Maine – moving farther and farther up the coast until we found something we could afford – one real estate agent in crowded (and pricey) Camden, Maine, started off with just two words to us:

"Washington County."

It's poor, the agent said. People down here regard it as a joke. There's not much in the way of services. And it's always foggy.

"All I can tell you is that it's beautiful."

Just like Venice.

Then there's the food.

In Lubec, the feeling in most restaurants seems to be that there's nothing that can't be improved upon by deep-frying. At the same time, the pizza – nearly always made by hand in the small mom-and-pop places that dominate here, can be surprisingly good.

Just like in Venice.

In fact, any Italophile will tell you that, for all its charms, Venice ranks low in the pantheon of Italian alta cucina. For great Italian food, you go to Bologna, or to Florence, or to Rome. In fact, just about anyplace but Venice.

But this brings up yet another parallel. For all the depressing uniformity one finds in the restaurants in both places, there is no escaping that both Venice and Lubec offer simply off-the-charts fresh seafood for you to prepare at home. In Venice, it's just a short walk from our rented apartment to La Pescaria – the open air fish market where the eels are so fresh they still are wriggling. This is the only place where I have seen swordfish steaks and then had to stare in the face the front end of the swordfish itself – complete with sword.

Lubec's wares may be less dramatic – more of the farm-raised salmon, fresh scallops, clams and lobster variety – but the freshness is every bit as impressive as in Venice. We even invented a recipe here to showcase this great seafood: Frank and Judy's Down East Scallop Stew. (see below).

And there are other parallels. Both Venice and Lubec are walking places, inexorably tied to the sea. Both are comparatively quiet: Lubec for the fact that it is hardly a tourist mecca (for which we, though perhaps not the locals, are eternally grateful); Venice because the modern urban cacophony of car engines and squealing brakes simply does not exist in a city built on water.

And neither place features any nightlife to speak of.

Finally, a not readily apparent parallel. Whereas Lubec (and eastern Maine in general) seems to have an inferiority complex compared to the rest of the state, especially the moneyed confines of Bar Harbor, Camden and Northeast Harbor, Venice has what only can be called a superiority complex to the rest of Italy. (This was, after all, once an independent republic that barely tolerated the Pope in Rome.)

The result? Each place, Venice and Lubec, can make it difficult for newcomers to fit in and feel welcome.

But for the friendships Judy and I have made in both places – and for the pictures we have made in each – it has been worth it.


Frank and Judy's Down East Scallop Stew

2 large onions, sliced
4 Tb olive oil
3 or 4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large can peeled plum tomatoes
4 lbs fresh ocean scallops
Lemon juice to taste
2 c (appx.) dry white wine
Dried tarragon

In large pot, saute‚ sliced onions and garlic in olive oil until onions are well-browned. Drain tomatoes in can, discarding liquid. Squeeze tomatoes to break them up and put into pot with onions, oil and garlic. Garnish liberally with dried tarragon.

In non-stick skillet, saut‚ scallops in olive oil, lemon juice and white wine sufficient to create a fair amount of liquid. When scallops are done (only a few minutes), transfer to the pot with the other ingredients and heat over low heat. Serve over pasta or rice. Serves 6 to 8.

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
A typical late-night street scene in Venice, Italy. Several things are in play here when it comes to parallels between Venice and Lubec, Maine. Fog, for one. The lack of any discernible night life for another. And the fact that downtown is eminently walkable.

©Frank Van Riper Photography
You don't have to be Ansel Adams or Eliot Porter to make a pleasant fog-shrouded scene in Lubec. I made this one (of my wife's garden at our summer place) merely by hopping out of bed.


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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