Two years ago I wandered the walkways of Venice for the first time, soaking up the city and making what photographs I could. After a while though, every image started to look the same: canals and colors and gondolas. What every other tourist sees. Sorta like going to the Grand Canyon and only photographing at the prescribed scenic overlooks: with no creative effort involved, you’ll get your postcard-worthy landscapes, but they’ll be the same as everyone else’s. I wrote about this a little in my blog post from that visit. I wanted the effort.
On the surface,Venice is all overlooks, but beyond them the city is private, more guarded. Venice projects a hologram of herself for public view when all the while she is really reading a book in a tucked-away garden, walled off from the crowds. I wanted to join her.
I consider myself a respectful traveler, and while I don’t usually set out “looking” for things to photograph (I just kind of keep curious while I wander somewhere) this visit seemed like a repeat of what I’d photographed the last time, just in different neighborhoods. I was disappointed. “What makes YOU worth my time?” I heard Venice ask me from inside her courtyards.
Lately I’ve been missing working in black & white. The Flying Adventures book has been my front-and-center project for so long that it’s left my monochromatic heart a little bereft. I’d hoped that Venice would dust it off and fill it back up with mysteries and ghosts and secrets to inspire that spirit in me. Yes the city is vibrant and full of all those gorgeous colors, but it’s also moody and surreal and feels like a fairy tale, and I wanted to somehow transcribe that in a black and white language.
After four short days we left Venice on a train for Vienna, but it wasn’t until three months later that I really began looking through my images. I was completely surprised to find that, while I thought I had come up empty-handed, Venice had granted me her favor after all.
There is something to be said for letting a draft sit before working on it again. Writers know this, and the rest of us might do well to take our cue, regardless of our medium. Thinking back to my darkroom days, I realize there was built-in waiting time: the slow rhythm of developing film, setting up chemistry, printing contact sheets, letting things dry. Waiting. Digital spits out everything instantly, and while that can be a great benefit, I’m finding I shouldn’t always trust what I first see coming out of the camera. It’s just a draft. Images I originally dismissed have turned into true loves, and ones I was head-over-heels for have turned back into frogs. It works both ways.
But back to Venice. Of course it’s possible to photograph a first impression of something and get a perfectly wonderful image. But it wasn’t first impressions of Venice that I wanted to remember. I wanted my photographs to evoke the city’s spirit as it affected me, and to somehow combine the reality of what I saw with my own memory and idea of it.
The first photograph in this post --- the gondolier on the Grand Canal --- was taken on a bouncy vaporetto with no room to move and passengers shouting behind me in five different languages. The gondolier, I now notice, is talking into his cellphone. This was a snapshot, really, and didn’t feel at all memorable at the time, but now, after having spent some time with the image — the clamor long gone — it says so much about how I wanted to remember the Grand Canal.
We don’t see things as they are, author Anais Nin wrote, we see things as we are. Yes, I was in Venice in 2017, but the dreamer in me was visiting in an earlier time, or maybe in some timeless time, which always seems to be where I feel most at home. Thank you, Venice. I can't wait to see what you'll show me next. I have a feeling we’ll be friends forever.