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Friday, August 20, 2010

Rialto, Venice, 2002

4 Rialto

Exposure: c. 25s

In 2001, when I began working on Let Us Burn the Gondolas in earnest, I did not have a clear idea of what my subject might be. So I invented a set of (not quite) arbitrary rules, which turned every photograph into an exercise in problem-solving. This was an effective way of avoiding being paralysed by larger questions, but it also provided a framework within which those larger questions could eventually be posed more effectively. What, exactly, was I interested in? What did I care about? On what subject did I have something to say, photographically?

One such rule was that the camera must depict a space from which a pedestrian could look back. This rule was inspired by the photographs of Charles Marville. Many of these show areas of nineteenth-century Paris that were shortly to be restructured or demolished, and Marville perhaps saw his photographs as an essential preparation for this attempt to modernize and rationalize the urban landscape. According to Westerbeck and Meyerowitz, Marville spoke of the demolitions as “percements”, and his photographs were comparable efforts to pierce the old quarters of the city, to drive a needle of vision through the crevice of the streets.[1]

Photography is frequently described in these terms: as invasive, penetrative, colonizing, oppressive. I don’t see it that way (and I'm not convinced that Marville did either). If the space is cleared of other pedestrians, as it is here, the purpose is not to deny the possibility of reciprocity, but rather to invite speculation as to who - or what - might return the camera's gaze.

Like the Salute, the bridge at Rialto is inescapable in photographs of Venice, but here it is isolated from its setting on the Grand Canal. Here the crowds have gone and the Carnival lights that might have helped to define and articulate the space are turned off. Here we see an empty stage set, with only the spotlights left on. Or rather, not quite empty. There is a very faint blur towards the top of the bridge under the right streetlamp, where the paths of everybody who walked past during the exposure cross.

[1] Colin Westerbeck and Joel Meyerowitz, Bystander: A History of Street Photography, 1994, p. 107.

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