Photographing Venice: Developing a more personal vision – Introduction
It’s certainly a challenge to develop a more personal vision and a degree of individuality. Firstly to succeed, you have to learn to adapt your photography in response to the rapidly changing weather and lighting conditions and to the massive daily influx of people. It is also valuable to understand that Venice is a composed of a grid or network of canals that run North-South and East/West. Knowing the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, one can start to plan the best time of day to be at a designated place.
Interestingly, tourism was just as much a problem for early Victorian artists, writers and poets. After the fall of Napoleon, they flocked in to wallow in the romantic decay and decadence. Even then, they perpetually moaned about the “bloody tourists”, that only appeared interested in visiting the main attractions and the superficial nature of outer appearances. Some claimed that to make art, you need to be “far from the maddening crowd”!
Venice is full of distracting elements and hordes of tourists every day of the year. With general views it is often impossible to control the picture elements. To do that in Venice, you need to develop a more selective approach to photographing any scene that confronts you.
To start to develop a more personal vision, you must try to look beyond the superficial or the commonplace and search for images which try to communicate what this city’s about – what artists variously call, its “essence, spirit, soul or truth”. Not just what you physically see; but expressing what you feel about the place too. In photography the final image will always be linked to reality; therefore, the aim should not just be to document but encapsulate a degree of experience and sensation within the image.
Another key function of photography is about making and retaining memories; highlighting the importance of the relationship between permanence and transience; all modulated by the passage of time.
Essentially the art of photography is to make visible. About trying to develop alternative ways of seeing and communicating to viewers those things most people would pass by unnoticed. Looking for symbols, icons and meaning; which characterize your vision of this city. It is discovering that beauty comes in many forms from the obviously attractive to the superficially ugly. Finally, another aspect is advancing technique forward, in order to execute your personal vision on screen or in print.
With experience, you will “make your own luck” and become much more productive. The old saying “we all look but do we see”, is very appropriate.
Photographing Venice: Developing a more personal vision – Relationships and Balance. To me, expressed in simple terms – it’s all about relationships and the balance between them. All these relationships form potential for photography.
Venice is about the relationship of man and nature. It’s also a structural and yet fragile city. About permanence and transience; the superficial and the hidden; reality and imagined and decline and reinvention. The relationship of the state, church and people; public and private. Beauty exists in a variety of forms and can be found in areas considered to be unattractive. Gallery art and street art often fired by political and religious tensions and the needs of people to express themselves.
Photographing Venice: Developing a more personal vision – Mantras
When photographing in Venice, I keep a mental check-list of simple phrases or “mantras”; which help with keeping me focused and looking for ideas to record.
Stone – water – colour – texture
Venice is a city of stone, water, colour and texture and the interface and interaction between these elements. Structures are modulated by light (both direct and reflected), by water (canals, flooding, rain), pollution (air and water borne) and the passage of time. Over successive visits, one can clearly see the effect of time on the relationship of permanence and transience.
Many of the city’s buildings are built with bricks from the Veneto mainland and then rendered and are rich in iron and other minerals. Walls, when affected by the ravages of time and saturation with moisture; encourage the cyclic growth of organisms. The result is that potential images that you would pass by un-noticed in dry periods; come alive with colour and texture.
Another feature is the posting of advertising and personal communications on walls, doors and most particularly power boxes; whether freestanding or set into brickwork. Modulated by time and the weather, they seem to merge and degenerate into surfaces; as if returning “back to nature”. Careful selection at the taking stage can result in images of striking similarity to the world of the abstract expressionists and other “mixed media” artwork.
Changing place – changing time – changing thoughts – changing future
A popular theme amongst the contemporary art crowd seen in both word and neon tube installations. It makes you think about the survival and future of this great city and what is permanent and what has changed. It is also reflected in the nature of the street art that barely lasts a season and so photography provides a unique record of the social, political and religious climate of that time. Bush, Obama, the late Princess Diana, the Catholic Church, the Pope and Antifa are just some subjects that have featured over the years.
Reality in Venice is mediated by its history and culture, religion, politics, economics, art, literature philosophy, music and even its cuisine. How do you turn this reality into satisfying images?
One’s conception or idea of a place, is formed by your preconceptions before you get there and your perceptions on arrival. If your preconceptions are different than your perception, this evokes are response. So the more you know about a place before hand, the more potentially successful and productive your photography will be. Research is the key. If visiting for the first time, a good tip is to look in all the postcard shops to see what scenes to photograph and gain an idea from what viewpoint they were taken and what time of day.
Changing one’s relationship with nature is the way to stimulate the imagination. From climbing a mountain to writing your novel in the garden shed – it seems to work!
A degree of anxiety stimulates the imagination and thoughts and emotions start to formulate ideas. Concentrating on the scene before you, free of distraction around you; more experienced photographers enter into a state of heightened perception or awareness. For photographers, the old hunting adage “it’s the chase and not the kill” is only half the equation; you need all your craft skills to materialize the ideas and bring the images back home!
Simplicity – purity – harmony – balance
Maturity brings an increasing emphasis on a more spiritual attitude to life, together with a greater appreciation of beauty in all its forms. These principles of simplicity, purity, harmony and balance, as embodied in Japanese concepts of Zen, are very relevant to my photography.
In nature, every action has a reaction and we function best when there is harmony and balance.
When confronting any scene, ideas need to be balanced by craft skills; to materialize and communicate them both in camera and the final image.
From a visual viewpoint, I am particularly interested in the idea of the “minimum”, which is essentially the pursuit of simplicity, exploring the possibilities it offers as a means of working creatively. Stripping out the extraneous matter, whether it is detail or perhaps colour, allows the essentials to shine through and brings rewards in clarity and directness of vision; communicating the photographer’s intention more forcefully.
Take simplicity for instance: less is often more, more for the imagination. Suggestion can also be very powerful – a person’s shadow, more powerful than the person. Reflections in water, more poetic than the reality. It is fascinating to think that in order to achieve this minimal state, the mind needs to intensely rationalise in order to produce a more emotional outcome. Simplicity however, whether in art, architecture or life itself, requires discipline and comes with experience.
Photography is about communication and can be seen as a 3-way process; a relationship between the subject matter, the photographer and the viewer. Looking at it in this way allows you to be more analytical and develop a greater understanding of every stage of the process, so increasing your ability to take a greater number of pictures that communicate well.
A successful photograph may show the property of “transcendence”. This is the evocation of something beyond the mere description of what is in front of the camera; a special magic. A common analogy would be that “the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts”. However, there is no guarantee that such pictures are transcendent to everybody; for example, the underlying symbolism within the picture elements may not be understood or sometimes images may need a caption.
Another term, “equivalence” describes the process of photography, whereby the emotional response equivalent to that which the photographer saw and felt at the time of exposure; is imbued into the final print. The underlying concept, borrowed from Symbolism, was that the emotion carried was not just dependent on the subject matter but transmitted at some deeper level by other picture elements. If the photograph mirrors feelings within the viewer; then that person experiences a degree of “equivalence”.
Analysis – attraction – selection – execution
Our vision has developed from a survival instinct to scan, lock on and react quickly to potential predators.
Seeing with both eyes gives us the capacity for depth perception. Focused on a fixed point with binocular vision, we have in the horizontal plane approximately 210 degrees of peripheral vision and about 55 degrees of central sharp and well resolved vision and we can freely move both our eyes and our heads. Wide peripheral vision allows for movement detection, whilst narrow central vision concentrates on detail resolution.
It could be said that in certain respects, a photograph is more representational than human vision. Our vision adapts to changes both in the quantity and quality of light perceived; film or digital sensors do not. Our eyes adjust and compensate to very bright conditions and also to variations in quality, such as the reddish light found around sunrise and sunset, or the blueness of shadows in strong sunlight. One of the big advantages of digital capture over film stock, is in the ability to control contrast and the rendering of shadow detail. With colour transparency film, you had to expose for the highlights and let the shadows look after themselves. In the narrow canals of Venice under sunny conditions, the extremes of lighting contrast can be great and were often beyond the ability of film stock to render shadow details properly.
Photography’s greatest strength lies in its capacity to document and the ability to record fine detail, allowing us to capture what we perceive and can describe as “reality”. A photographic image, unlike a painting will always be bound to reality. However, since its discovery it has also been increasingly used as a vehicle for personal expression and today it is accepted as an independent fine art form. In simple terms, all photographs display a “continuum” of both objective and subjective vision. Starting with reality we use the camera system’s viewfinder or LCD screen to frame or select, part of our environment that interests us. If captured in colour and with good resolution, this image is the closest to reality and hence the most objective vision that we can achieve. Every other stage of the photographic process from conception to execution and to the final print; is subject to personal variability and therefore subjectivity.
As the scene we confront becomes more becomes more abstracted from reality, we start to lose the parameters of linear and atmospheric perspective, which contribute to the sense of depth in a picture. Artists such as the “Abstract Expressionists” in particular, used a flattened perspective in their work and created the allusion of space and depth by manipulating the elements of colour and texture and often by the addition of physical matter; such as printed text, sand, plaster and wax.
Photographing Venice: Developing a more personal vision – Confronting a Scene. Conceiving an image requires a forensic approach – a checklist of questions and actions.
What is it that attracts – is it the subject matter, the quality of light, the pictorial elements (form, line, shape, colour and texture)? Are there signs or symbols characteristic of Venice and any underlying meaning? What feelings are generated? What picture elements do I want to bring out?
Often the best and most powerful images communicate in a simple and direct manner. However, some successful photographs contain areas of subsidiary interest and detail that keeps the eye moving the around the picture; producing lasting enjoyment. Occasional images may give up their secrets only very slowly, or take a significant passage of time to be fully appreciated. Furthermore, the overall form of the final image (which may include its frame and mount) should have an overall sense of “rightness” about it, leaving little inclination to change or rearrange the picture elements.
Photographing Venice: Developing a more personal vision – Conclusion. This unique and beautiful city of Venice offers an infinite wealth of photo opportunities to harvest. Adaptability to the changing weather, lighting conditions and to the massive daily influx of people is important. Reality in Venice is mediated by its history and culture, religion, politics, economics, art, literature philosophy, music and even its cuisine. Essentially, the more you know before you visit the more productive you will become. Being sensitive to all the relationships mentioned above, helps you become more perceptive, open to different ideas and greater success.
It is an ideal place to attempt to develop a more personal vision in what is probably the worlds most photographed city.
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