Venice… Oh Venice.
Brodsky’s comment that one’s body becomes a mere vessel for the eye truly encapsulates the bombardment to the senses one faces when entering the city of Venice for the first time. People flow like traffic, weaving in and out of small and narrow roads, merging into a sea of colour that moves head-long into the fray. Meanwhile, mobs ferry themselves off in bustling, light green vaporetti to reach Rialto Bridge, The Academia, or Tronchetto, in which sitting or standing provides an indication of your localness.
Sellers of Murano glass, trinkets, and cheap plastic toys line the major highways, while gondoliers slouch on the side of bridges, cigarettes in hand, passing time until traveller’s approach. Immigrant boys wander, throwing spinning lights up into the air or slamming neon coloured putty into the ground, solemnly waiting for their next dollar. While bright orange spritzes, expensive bottles of champagne and Cicchetti of every kind float on silver platters that glare in the sun. All of which is enveloped in a mix of Byzantine, Gothic, & Renaissance architecture, that would make any claustrophobic’s knees buckle if removed from the centre of Saint Mark’s Square.
This buzz of excitement is contagious. Each street gorges the senses, either through hysteria or serenity; one is either given time to think or none at all. Swamped on Calle del Fontego with the shoppers and snap-shooters, you can find respite by turning a left or right, where a Bacari is but a few paces and an espresso accessible in a matter of moments. Even in these instances of solace, one never remains alone, for the voices of the past seem to echo, reverberating off the walls, each pavement, and every painting.
Can You Call Yourself A Photographer?
I am by no means a professional photographer. Even labelling myself as an amateur seems rather rich, for before I came to live in Venice on October 1st, 2017, I had rarely picked up a camera outside of snapping the family after a dinner date.
Venice, like New York or London, inspires one to pick up a camera. Not only is the environment rich and diverse with different colours, textures, buildings, and objects, but the people who occupy this city are just as vivid too. From the businessmen who wear tailor-made suits and custom-made boots, to the hipster, adorning tartan trousers and a tilted fedora – Venice has it all. Everyone is rushing or waiting, coated in sunshine or a pea soup that creates an intensity worth capturing.
Venice is for wanderers. To see the city, you must get lost, to accept that you do not know, that you do not understand, and that to learn you must make mistakes. One must turn off the main roads, remove oneself from familiarity, meet dead ends, double back, re-trace one’s steps, and start all over again.
Learning how to take a photograph is a similar process. You have to accept the inevitable… you’re going to get lost; mistakes will happen, and dead ends will be plentiful. Personally, I have always found this difficult to accept. I want to be good, to get something right, to not fail but to succeed. However, this unrealistic expectation will only inhibit your ability to achieve.
Errors are inescapable and are ultimately necessary if you want to develop. Photography is liberated from this initial angst. When a split-second determines whether you capture a shot, you don’t have time to think whether it will be any good… you just go for it. Snap it and see. Of course, afterward one can and will be critical of this moment, however, in the moment, at the crucial juncture before your finger hits the trigger… you just have to do it, without hesitation, removed from fear.
How I Shoot
As I’ve mentioned, I’m not a professional. I had minimal equipment, purely working with a Canon EOS 1300D and an EFS 18-55mm lens. My technical knowledge was virtually non-existent, outside of a few theoretical ideas on Street-Photography that I picked up from a History of Photography course. I decided to just run with what I had, forget the details for now and just have fun with it.
I understood that taking the Ansel Adams approach of looking, waiting and being patient would not be appropriate under my given circumstances. My kit was insufficient, I did not have a long or wide-angle lens… or even a stand and my ability to frame shots was shaky at best. I wanted raw images, focused on the people I saw, the individuals I found interesting.
I decided to go full Gonzo. Walk the streets with no direction, aimlessly dart in and out of canopies, keep the finger on the trigger, and hope that something stuck.
My buddy and I would venture out on a Sunday morning, with a camera on our shoulder and a paper-back in our pocket, the early morning sun hitting the back of our necks, energizing us for the adventure ahead. We felt like explorers, breaking new ground, treading on the un-treaded. Each of us would cover a different territory, click-clicking as we went.
After comparing shots, we would visit the nearest bar, sip Moretti’s and cigarettes while discussing the writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thompson. We would take both pleasure in and pictures of the chaotic rumbling and bumbling swathe of pilgrims, who jostled up the cobbled pathways. And as they went, so did we, continuing along the stretch, attempting to find new sites, smells, and sounds to investigate.
On other occasions, I would stand at the centre of the Ponte della Paglia, ready to fish, like those on the opposite bank, dotting in-between passers-by, while intermittently reeling myself back in to observe the whole scene when I became overwhelmed by the crowd. This place, above all others, was perfect for shots that are up-close-and-personal.
People cross this stretch to get a glimpse of the Ponte dei Sospiri (The Bridge of Sighs), while many others continued onward to reach the Giardini della Biennale. Everyone was always moving, looking, chatting, lapping up a gelato, or taking a cheeky selfie. The camera recorded it all, every precise articulation of the human body was documented, from the conception of a smile, beginning to creep in from the corner of the mouth, to the pronunciation of an outstretched forearm, cutting through the air, pushing the body forward like the pistons of a locomotive.
Time froze with every click, in which, nine-times-out-of-ten, a shot would be an unaesthetic, uninteresting or poorly framed slice of space. However, with persistence and the repeated bang of a button, some semblance of success began to occur.
What Makes A Good Photograph?
You’re always trying to capture one true moment, a piece of reality that is, at its best, both honest and deceitful. For in presenting a single moment you are simultaneously denying many others. The picture is but one reality. It is not a truth, yet neither is it a falsehood. It is both dead and alive… a Schrodinger’s cat if you will. However, the act of looking cannot alter the nature of the image, for it is fixed, stateless, and bound in time. We are therefore left to guess what happened, is happening, and will happen.
Although it is a relatively simple matter to theoretically understand what makes a good photograph, it is another to comprehend these ideas internally so that one can put them into practice.
While I could determine which pictures I liked (and those I didn’t) the approach by which I took them was, to my knowledge, no different. Of course, to develop a feel for what works takes a great deal of practice. Initially, you are functioning on a semi-subconscious level, in which you react to your surroundings largely unaware, or more precisely, un-deciding of the objects and people that should be included within the image.
It is only through an analysis of your results, a trial-and-error process, that one can gain the confidence to make conclusions on what items should be included, how the image should be framed, and at which moment the curtain should fall.
The image below (Dandelion Daydream) is a good example of how important one’s position is when taking a photograph. The image in question was taken during a trip to Murano, an island off the main portion of Venice, famous for its multi-coloured houses. The girl depicted was waiting to have her photo taken by a friend, holding her chosen dandelion close to her chest.
Upon seeing this, I knew that a fantastic shot was to be had, so long as I could position myself correctly and wait patiently for the upcoming stream of dandelion seeds to be blown into the air. Her companion was located in-front of her, attempting to portray the girl en-face, while I decided that a profile portrait would be more effective.
In composing the picture from a frontal position, much of the focus from the intended protagonist was lost. Behind the subject sat numerous distractions, from people walking about, a small strip of ocean, moored boats, and even a dustbin.
Although these objects can possibly be of interest in certain situations, providing greater context, depth of perspective and even elements of humour, they were mere disturbances within this scenario. By keeping the background plain, removed from any interference, the action becomes isolated. All of our attention is placed on the girl, what she is wearing and doing.
Additionally, in using a simplified backing the dandelion seeds become clearly visible. In all likelihood, it would have been difficult to see this within the picture taken by my competing photographer due to his choice in positioning. It is from this experience that I learned that it was not only important to capture a great moment but to shoot that moment within the most optimum position.
Should You Take Photo’s In The Street?
So, if you are wondering… can I do it? The answer is yes… you can. While the photographs that I have displayed in this article are by no means earth shattering, virtuoso pieces, they are (I hope) an example that competent photographs can be taken by an amateur without the need for expensive gear or editing software.
Of course, if you invest in better equipment then there will be a far greater breadth of options at your disposal. However, this is not necessary. To take a ‘good’ photograph, all that is required is a camera and a good eye. While this will still be difficult to accomplish, with practice, this skill will come. Although what you must first do is get out and do it.
While having a few lovely images for all your hard efforts is a fantastic feeling, what is even more rewarding is the adventures you will find yourself in along the way. Taking photographs around Venice allowed me to understand not only its geography, culture, and people but how I perceived all these elements. The camera hones one’s attention to the minutia, to the unseen, and unspotted. In trying to achieve the perfect picture, you are able to reflect upon what you have experienced, rather than simply ‘seeing’ and subsequently moving on.
So, if you are uncertain, hesitant, or a little worried about taking photos of random strangers, just ask yourself: ‘Do I want an adventure? Do I want to push myself into unknown territory? Can I allow myself to fail, learn, and succeed?’ If your answer is yes, then street photography is for you. If your answer no… then street photography is a must for you.