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Portrait of an Artist – In Half an Hour

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

It was a tenuous link, between the tiny town of Machias, Maine and the ancient elegance of Venice's Piazza San Marco, but it was enough to put us in touch with one of Italy's most famous artists – and also to engage in a whirlwind portrait session that produced some terrific results – and a remarkable souvenir.

At age 70, Ludovico De Luigi might rightly be called one of Venice's venerable old "Lions," a native son who has been world renowned as a painter and sculptor for decades. He has been compared – favorably – to both the old master Canaletto and the modern master Salvador Dali for his surreal, often apocalyptic, visions of the city of his birth. The rich detail and long perspectives of his canvases call to mind Canaletto; his unusual objects interspersed with familiar urban landscapes recall Dali.

Our first exposure to De Luigi was tangential at best. A videographer friend in Maine had occasion to contact the artist when De Luigi was in the US several years ago for the public installation of one of his heroic equine sculptures. In the course of that contact, our friend John had been given the loan of a videotape about De Luigi along with a sheaf of promotional materials about his career and work. Somehow, our friend never gave them back.

"The next time you're in Venice," John asked Judy and me one summer in Maine, "do you think you can return these to him?"

Piece of cake, I replied – then promptly forgot to take the items with us on our trip to Venice the following January.

So it was last November, on our second trip of the year, that I looked up Ludovico De Luigi in the Venice white pages, attempting to do a good deed, and perhaps also make a photograph.

[I should note here that I had only a vague notion of what De Luigi looked like or how old he actually was. The video was unviewable, being in European format, and the still PR photos with his bio materials obviously were dated.]

I wish all the folks I try to call for interviews or photo sessions were this easy to reach. Ludovico answered the phone himself. We conversed briefly in Italian, then switched (happily) to English in which he is fluent.

We arranged to meet the next day at his gallery, La Galleria Ravagnan, run by his longtime friend and colleague Luciano Ravagnan. The gallery will be hard to miss, Ludovico said, it's right next to Caffe Florian.

To anyone who knows Venice, this would have been a pretty good tip-off that the artist I had contacted was of the first rank. The gallery that represents him is in probably one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in Italy, and it sits next to Florian, arguably the most elegant – and pricey – watering hole in Venice, with the possible exception of Harry's Bar.

At the appointed time we got to the gallery and first met Luciano, a dapper man in glasses who proudly showed off his elegant space as we waited for the maestro, who was by then fashionably late. Ludovico did not disappoint. I suspect he is used to making entrances, for he bounded into the gallery, promptly gave Judy a kiss and signed over to us a gorgeous, just-published catalog of his life's work. With his long leonine hair and piercing pale eyes, I knew immediately I wanted to photograph him.

As luck would have it, we couldn't shoot immediately in the gallery – which suited us fine. Ludovico and Luciano were about to have lunch, to discuss an upcoming exhibition of De Luigi's work in Florida. And besides, both Judy and I wanted something more funky, so I suggested we meet some time at his home – perhaps to photograph him in his studio.

Fine, said Ludovico, how about 4:30 this afternoon?

I know this is starting to sound too good to be true, but it wasn't. Still, it did create in my mind anyway a feeling that we should not push our luck and overstay our welcome – gracious though Ludovico and his wife were when we arrived that afternoon at their home in Venice's pleasantly residential Dorsoduro section.

In truth, at that hour the apartment's drawing room where we initially sat and chatted was getting dark. So we headed down to the studio, which in its glorious clutter and confusion was everything Judy and I had hoped it would be.

Happily, the lighting in the studio was bright and direct – geared more to illuminating an artist's canvas on the easel than to creating ambience. But this also created some stark directional light for us to work with; a boon since Judy and I each were working by available light. For the next half hour or so, it was like tag-team wrestling. I'd see an angle I liked and Judy would let me make the picture, then we'd switch. For example, seeing the huge mirror hung above and to the side of the canvas De Luigi was working on, I immediately got down on the floor and shot Ludovico from below, while capturing another view of him in the mirror. [The mirror, by the way, helps him gauge the accuracy of his composition and perspective, much the way a view camera's reversed image does.]

Both of us made a number of close-ups, some three-quarter length, some much tighter – covering all our bases in the time we had. I was using a Nikon F100 and 28-105 f. 3.5-4.5 zoom, loaded with Kodak T400CN, as well as my wonderful Leica M6 and 35mm f.2 Summicron, loaded with Ilford Delta 3200. Judy was shooting with her own F100 and a Nikon N90s, and shooting both films as well.

Near the end of our session, Judy asked Ludovico if he could draw something so that we could photograph him actually working. Not missing a beat, he grabbed a piece of drawing board and some crayons and set to work drawing one of his signature horse's heads – thereby enabling Judy to make a wonderful environmental shot of De Luigi literally engulfed by all of his stuff, including a couple of racy calendar pinups to his left.

It was getting late and we started to take our leave, delighted with how things had gone in the truncated, minimal equipment, portrait session.

"Wait," Ludovico said, and then inscribed the newly-drawn horse's head to the two of us and signed it with flourish.

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
Close-up of world renowned painter/sculptor Ludovico De Luigi, photographed in his studio in Venice during what may have been the shortest portrait session of our career. Not wanting to impose on the artist's time, Judy and I played tag-team, each shooting a few pix, then letting the other try a different location in De Luigi's wonderfully cluttered studio. All photos were made by available light on Ilford Delta 3200 or on Kodak T400CN.

©Frank Van Riper
De Luigi uses a huge mirror suspended near his canvas to help him gauge whether his composition and perspective are accurate. The reversed image helps give him a more "objective" look at his work, in much the same way that the upside down and reversed image on a view camera's ground glass can distance a photographer from an image and thereby enable him or her to judge it better. I thought the mirror might work well in a portrait.

©Judith Goodman
Judy's inspiration was to ask Ludovico if he might draw something as we photographed him. He grabbed a piece of drawing board and some crayons and drew one of his signature horse's heads...

©Ludovico De Luigi
...which he graciously signed and gave to us just before we left.


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: www.glenechopark.org/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

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