Special Features

Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Dentro 'Il Circolo': Inside 'The Circle'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Il Circolo Fotografico La Gondola/Venezia – best translated as the Venice Photographic Society, La Gondola – was founded in 1948 by photographers whose names now are legend in Italy if not the world.

Chief among those was Paolo Monti, arguably one of the finest photojournalists of the post-World War 2 era. Within a few years other great photographers lent their names to "La Gondola," including Giorgio Giacobbi, Fulvio Roiter and, most especially, Gianni Berengo Gardin, whose work I consider to be not only the equal of, but in many ways superior to, that of the legendary photojournalist and documentarian Henri Cartier-Bresson.

So when Judy and I returned to Venice last month to continue work on our book it made sense to touch base with the current members of "the circle," if for no other reason than to pick their collective brain about what else my wife and I should photograph as we near the end of a more than five-year project to document the people and places of Venice in winter.

At least two friends – one a photographer, the other a photography enthusiast – had touted Il Circolo to us and it was easy to Google La Gondola's impressive website www.cflagondola.it. Seeing so much diverse and first-rate work on the site, I sent a message to La Gondola's webmaster, Mario Mazziol, thinking Judy and I might meet him and a few other members of the group over lunch or drinks during our two-week shooting trip.

Imagine my surprise when Mario e-mailed me saying that, not only could I meet with the members, I was going be the main speaker at their weekly meeting, Friday, November 14!

Think about it: all I wanted was maybe a friendly lunch and a few drinks. Now I was tagged not only to make a speech, but to make a speech during which I also was to show our photographs of Venice – to Venetians.

Venetians who were photographers – very good photographers [like Mario Mazziol, for example, whose work has been published all over Europe.]

And, of course, I had to do all this in Italian.

Hey, no pressure.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the most exhilarating, enjoyable experiences of our entire trip. It also gave Judy and me valuable insight into how seriously a group like La Gondola takes photography – its history, its aesthetic, its place in Italian society as a whole.

Judy's and my exposure to La Gondola actually began much earlier than the 9pm start time of my talk. (I should note here that early on, Judy, though my partner on the Venice book, made it clear that, in Italy anyway, I was going to do the public speaking since her Italian is very limited, or, as an Italian friend noted when describing his own poor English, "random.") First came lunch with La Gondola president Manfredo Manfroi at one of Venice's premier restaurants. Over what seemed like an endless number of courses, all of them delicious, Manfredo made the interesting observation that Italian postwar film directors like Fellini, DiSica and others are far better known than their "neorealistic" still photography counterparts, the most notable perhaps being Paolo Monti and Gianni Berengo Gardin. This despite the fact that the tone, texture and often the subject of their work is markedly similar to what showed up in films of the 1950s and 60s.

I had no answer for this and noted to my chagrin that, until we actually began photographing in Venice, I never even had heard of Berengo Gardin, much less seen his work. [I recall later asking a friend why Cartier-Bresson was so much better known than Gianni Berengo Gardin. "Cartier-Bresson had a better press agent," the friend replied immediately.]

After lunch, Manfredo escorted us to the ornate Museo Fortuny – the Fortuny Museum – and La Gondola's impressive archive of vintage Italian photography. We joined Mario Mazziol and several other Circolo members there for an extended tour of some really wonderful vintage prints, all of which Mario is scanning to better preserve them in the archive – and also to feature them at times on La Gondola's website.

It already had been a long day when the museum visit ended and, happily, we had a little down time before our evening presentation. The society's meeting place is on the Venetian island of Giudecca – across the lagoon from the Zattere. It was a crisp, moonlit night and as Judy and I made our way to the meeting room, a crowd of about 25 started filling the seats.

It is difficult to say what made me more nervous: speaking in public to a group of strangers in Italian, or showing Venetians pictures that Judy and I (two Americans from Washington, DC) purport to show an accurate insider's view of "la vita Veneziana."

We brought with us about three dozen 11x14 bxw silver prints, as well as a portfolio of small giclee Iris prints. This latter group concentrated more on the beauty of Venice's buildings and other architecture, while the silver prints were far more journalistic and featured people prominently. Virtually all of these were available light street photography.

By the end of the evening it was clear that we had passed the test. The members of the group praised our work, as well as the approach to our book. They said our work showed Venice sympathetically, though I have to admit the small universe of prints we carried with us did not show, for example, a homeless man sleeping in a vaporetto stop, or beggars in the streets. Still, what pleased us most, I think, is that the group seemed to feel that Judy and I had successfully avoided most of Venice's visual clichés.

Though not all of them.

Only half in jest, the group implored us not to make a big deal in our book of Carnevale, the re-constituted pre-Lenten festival that draws people from all over the world to parade around Serenissima in elaborate costumes and masks.

Most native Venetians view this hoopla with a cynical disdain. It was resurrected, after all, just to further goose the tourist trade, and during the ten days of the festival, it is almost impossible to find a real Venetian in Piazza San Marco, so jammed is it with costumed performers, gawkers – and photographers.

One year, I have to admit, two of those photographers were Judy and me, and we did make some very good stuff, some of which will be in the book.

But we have to agree with members of Il Circolo on two things: 1. Carnevale is not the real Venice, and 2. if you've seen one Carnevale, you've seen them all.

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.

©Mario Mazziol
Photographer Mario Mazziol's enigmatic picture of a figure in an angel costume, made with a Hasselblad Xpan, is a wonderful evocation of Venice's storied 'Carnevale' without being clichéd or obvious.

©Mario Mazziol
I was struck my Mario's ability to use the Xpan vertically, as this beautifully composed image of one of Venice's ubiquitous (though no longer used) wellheads illustrates.

"For best performance in Italian..." Here, La Gondola president Manfredo Manfroi (in sports jacket) presents me with a really gorgeous memento: a gold plated replica of a gondola's "ferro" on a marble base inscribed with my name and the date of my talk to "il Circolo." At right is my wife Judy. At extreme left is club secretary Sandro Righetto. Incidentally, that's just a small sample of our Venice work behind us.


Photography columnist and author Frank Van Riper will teach a 6-week evening workshop in documentary photography and photographic printing at Glen Echo Park's PhotoWorks studio this winter. The Thursday evening classes will begin February 19th and go through March 25th. and will be open to all students who would like to improve their photographic story-telling and/or darkroom skills. Class hours are 7pm-10:30pm. Students will be expected to initiate or continue a project of their choosing, and pursue that project during the course of the workshop. Weekly discussions of each student's progress will be held, both in class and privately, with the goal of producing a finished picture story by the end of the class. Students wishing to also accompany their photo essays with written text are encouraged to do so. Class size is limited. Early registration is suggested. For information: 301-320-7757. Or see website: Brochure.pdf



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

 Van Riper on Van Riper

Frank Van Riper Archive:

'I've Always Been Crazy' ...For Honky Tonk

Traveling Photogs Finally Get a Break

Loving At First Sight

Again in Search of Acqua Alta

The Hassy Xpan II: Think Leica/Hummer

A Troubled Genius Frozen in Time