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Photographing Italy: Seven Views-and a Farewell

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Like those of so many immigrants, my late mother's family was determined to become as American as possible as fast as possible.

Though mom, born Carmella Casullo, was born here in 1907, nearly all of her many brothers and sisters were born in Italy and lived in the tiny village of Monteleone di Puglia before their big voyage to the States around the turn of the 20th century.

Typically, my mother recalled, she and her siblings, living then in the Bronx, rebelled at hearing Italian spoken at home. "We're Americans now," she remembers saying, "we need to speak English."

And so they did. In later years, when I was growing up, and after many of my aunts, uncles and cousins, moved to New Jersey, the only time I heard Italian spoken was when we visited them during the summer and at the holidays and when a grownup wanted to say something I wasn't supposed to hear.

So much did Italian fall into disuse in our family that my mother felt compelled one year to enroll in an evening Italian class at my high school to keep from forgetting it all.

It didn't help. Her regional dialect was so strong that the classic Italian spoken by the teacher might as well have been Russian--or Martian.

That is one reason, I suspect, that some photographers inevitably go back to their roots-even if those roots may be ones of emotion, not blood.

The pull simply is too strong to ignore. And the desire to preserve, interpret and document something you love is overwhelming. I commend a wonderful show to you-even if in doing so I am touting my own and my wife's work. But as you read further, I think you will understand.

Images of Italy, opening Friday, June 4th at the Kathleen Ewing Gallery in downtown Washington, offers a marvelous visual cross-section of this diverse and beautiful country. Seven of us, contemporary photographers all, have work on the walls that resonates in each of us and, we hope, in you when you see it.

For example:

Regina De Luise, who spent many years teaching around Cortona, offers spectacular, beautifully seen platinum print still lifes-intimate reminders of her Italian surroundings Frank DiPerna, working in large format color, went back to his ancestral village of Piaggine. Once there he photographed the surrounding countryside of Salerno and came back with elegant landscapes of subtle color and near-abstract beauty.

Kate Freedberg, who spent her young years in Florence, returned there with a panoramic camera-and audio recorder--to document, sometimes with wry humor, the invasion of tourists into this most aristocratic of Italian cities.

So too does Andrew Z. Glickman reflect contemporary Italy-this time with his fly-on-the-wall color views of one large Italian shopping mall.

Claudia Smigrod, augmented by the written expressions of her son Jake Dingman, creates an impressionistic black and white portfolio of a mother and son's first joint trip to Italy.

And, finally, my wife Judith Goodman and I offer some of our favorite atmospheric views of Venice in Winter, the subject of our next book.

The old chestnut for a writer is "write what you know." The same idea can apply to photographers, though I always add the caveat that for a photographer visual stimuli are everywhere. And sometimes a shooter plopped down into a new place may see things that locals or natives have ignored for years.

Nevertheless, I hold with the notion that it always is best to get to know the place you want to document-whether on film, on audiotape or in print. Which is why in my own documentary photography the process often can take years to do right. And in my case, you have to factor in that I also am writing about what I am photographing.

So, my book on the Chesapeake, Faces of the Eastern Shore, took two years, Down East Maine/A World Apart took six, and now Serenissima/ Venice in Winter, is taking six-and counting. But, happily, the end is in sight.

Like what I suspect is the case with our fellow artists in this show, Judy's and my connection to Italy-in this case Venice--initially was an emotional one. It is the place where we honeymooned 20 years ago, though we had no idea then that it one day would be the subject of one of our books. The idea for a photography book on Venice came, ironically, because of my role as The Post's photography columnist. [I say ironically because, as you will see, the book now is one reason I soon will be vacating this space.]

In 1998, a reader who was a travel agent asked me to lead a photography tour during Carnevale, Venice's colorful pre-Lenten festival. That experience convinced both Judy and me that Venice would be the subject of the next book--and most important, that it would be a collaboration between the two of us. And so we have worked ever since, amassing-as of today and not counting our next trip in December-more than 6000 images of the most beautiful city in the world.

It is the best work either of us ever has done, and it includes some of the finest writing of my life. That is why, as we near the end of the project, I have no choice but to give it the full attention it needs, and deserves.

A Very Fond Farewell-for Now With this week's column, I begin a hiatus to allow me the luxury of finishing work on the Venice project that gently has commanded so much of Judy's and my time over the past six years. Though my weekly column will cease for now, I still will be contributing occasional articles on photography-reviews, essays and interviews-reflecting the ever-changing state of the art and of the industry.

In other words, I'll still be in CameraWorks-just not as often.

I have been writing "Frank Van Riper on Photography" in one form or another for the past 12 years, winning awards and accolades in the process, but most important enjoying the connections and friendships I've made in the photography community all over the country, and now the world. But now it is time to put things on hold. Eight years in the Washington Post's printed Friday Weekend section gave me my first exposure as a photography columnist, but this past stint in CameraWorks-four years of doing a weekly online column beamed all over the world--has been an adventure I would not have traded for anything. I was welcomed into the electronic fold by Tom Kennedy, managing editor for multimedia at Washington Post-Newsweek Interactive. He hired me on the strength of a phone call looking for a place to hang my hat, and I have been proud ever since to be a part of his efforts to turn CameraWorks, and by extension Washingtonpost.com, into a truly multimedia experience for the many thousands of folks who visit our site every day and who have made this site so successful.

This is a crucial time for online journalism, when newspaper websites must choose between being mere electronic clones of their print counterparts, or becoming vibrant, dynamic portals for news and information, photos and video, that the printed page simply cannot match. Washingtonpost.com made that commitment when it opened for business; now it is up to all concerned to see that commitment through. I wish Tom and his colleagues well in the challenging time ahead and offer heartfelt thanks to all who have been with me on this wonderful ride.

See you down the road again-and at the book party.

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.

© Judith Goodman
Judith Goodman’s dramatic Loggia, San Marco evokes ancient Egypt, with its imposing columns. The photo was made on a winter night in Venice and captures the mystery and romantic beauty of this singular city.

© Frank DiPerna
Frank DiPerna’s return to his Italian roots produced, among other images, this striking, almost abstract image of a breakwater in Vieste.

© Andrew Z. Glickman
A wonderful, universal, moment photographed by Andrew Z. Glickman at an Italian shopping mall.

© Frank Van Riper
Venice, though romantic and mysterious, also is a living city. Here is the local soccer stadium—a study in horizontals and verticals—made with a toy Holga camera.


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

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