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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Preparing for Venice

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

As I write this I also am checking plane reservations and, almost as important, the online weather forecasts for northern Italy. Venice in winter is a romantic notion – as well as the title of our next book – but it also is a time and place where you don't want to be caught without your long underwear.

This trip has been three years in the making, ever since Judy and I spent a glorious week in Venice leading a photo tour during Carnevale in February 1998. We came back with such wonderful pictures – all in black and white – that I knew right then that this would be the next book, after Down East Maine/ A World Apart. (Truth to tell, I was all set to have my agent pitch the book on the basis of Judy's and my one-week production of pictures. As usual, Judy was the sensible one and noted that no one does a book like this in one week. And besides, it's bringing us back to Venice, this time for a month.)

The four-week sojourn, easily the most intense period of location photography we ever have attempted, should be fraught with great stories about the pictures we got, the pictures we didn't get (and why), the people we met and the places we saw. It will be about emotions, feelings, creativity, great food and, inevitably, equipment, all of which I plan to share with you.

And happily, if all goes as planned, I'll start sharing with you next week. That's because, even though I am writing this piece in January, you are reading it in February. In fact, you are reading it a few days after Judy and I are scheduled to have returned to the United States.

Get it? The trip's already over. Did we have a great time? Hope so. Can't wait to see next week's column and find out.

Getting ready for a trip like this – during which, so help me IRS, our main objective is work – has meant a great deal of physical and mental preparation. The physical part had mostly to do with the equipment Judy and I were forced to shoehorn into the smallest bags we could find, thanks to the ridiculous carry-on requirements of the airlines. Of course, like all of our fellow traveling photographers, we couldn't risk packing bricks of film into our checked luggage, for fear of having it fried by the new, film-destroying CTX scanning machines that airlines have begun using to better detect explosives. And packing valuable, easily hockable cameras in checked luggage was out since this risks having them damaged by careless baggage handlers or ripped off by larcenous ones. So inevitably we had to figure out a way to carry all the equipment we needed as well as all the film we needed – in our puny carry-on bags.

The solution we hit on was twofold. First, to supplement the smaller Tamrac Rolling Strong Box that I bought (and wrote about) months ago to meet the new carry-on rules, I bought Judy the popular Lowepro Mini Trekker photo backpack to hold her cameras and film. Judy will work, as she has for years, in 35mm, relying on her Nikon N90 and 8008 and an assortment of lenses. The Mini Trekker can handle all of that and still have a lot of room for her film: Kodak T400CN and Ilford Delta 3200. NB: at this writing, it is unclear whether she also will be shooting 100-speed PolaPan instant bxw slide film. (See, that's another reason to check in next week.)

I plan the bulk of my shooting to be in medium-format bxw, though I plan to bring at least two 35mm cameras as well. For serious work, I'll use my quiet as a mouse and sharp as a tack Leica M6 rangefinder with a 35mm f.2 Summicron. But for snapshots in both bxw and color I'll have my wonderful little Leica Minilux point and shoot (with an incredibly sharp 40mm f/2.4 lens).

Happily, the Tamrac Rolling Strong Box seems big enough to accommodate all the medium-format gear I need: a Mamiya 6 rangefinder with 50mm lens; one Hasselblad 500CM, with 50mm, 80mm and 150mm lenses, as well as a Hasselblad Superwide CM.

Restrictions of both weight and size (I have to carry this stuff, remember) means that I will not be carrying any elaborate strobe lighting. There'll be just what I had with me last time: one rugged little Vivitar 283 and a high-voltage rechargeable battery. I plan at least half to three-quarters of my pictures to be made by available light anyway.

Last time we were in Venice, I made the dead wrong decision that I would not need a tripod. I brought my Gitzo monopod instead and never used it once. As a result, I wound up having to borrow a tripod a couple of times from one of my tour-goers so that I could make some pictures at seconds-long exposures while I painted the scene with multiple strobe pops from my 283. This time, I will have with me an incredibly small, yet incredibly stable, Gitzo G-126, fitted with a compact Bogen 3262 ball head. This really is one of the neatest tripods I've ever seen and while it never will replace my heavy-as-lead Gitzo 341 Inter Pro Studex (which easily can accommodate all formats up to 4x5) this rugged, rigid little marvel is fine for 35mm and medium-format shooting.

The mental part of our preparation is a little more esoteric. First, as an ex-newspaper reporter, I have been reading everything I can get my hands on to absorb as much of Venice as I can from afar before we return. This includes everything from novels, to tourbooks, to architectural drawings, to other photography books – even cookbooks. Judy and I also have taken in a number of movies in which Venice is featured, including "Don't Look Now" and "Death in Venice" up to "The Talented Mr. Ripley."

We hope to hook up with a number of people who either live in Venice or who have friends there, the better to pick their brains for picture ideas.

And of course, we hope to revisit places we saw in '98 to see if we might improve upon the images we got three years before.

Judy and I both hope to capture a Venice that few tourists see: a beautiful, atmospheric, opera set of a city, cloaked in fog and mystery. We hope, too, to reflect the daily life of the people who actually live or work in this marvelous place – and for that we are glad that the apartment we are renting is in the sestiere of Santa Croce, one of the less touristy parts of Venice.

Inevitably, though, all of the preparation in the world does not prepare one for happy accidents. I do feel, though, that preparation – not to mention carrying a camera every waking hour – allows more of those accidents to happen.

We'll see.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
In Piazza San Marco/Carnevale '98

©Frank Van Riper
Time exposure. Venetian fire department on left.

©Judith Goodman
Vaporetto ride/Carnevale '98.

Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Cuba: Taking Strong Exception

A Whole Lotta Shakin' Can Improve Your Pix

Pat Fisher's Stamp of Approval

The Frustrating Genius of Edward Steichen

Stephen King, Photography Teacher

 Van Riper on Van Riper

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