height

Friday, June 26, 2009

Surviving Industrial Buildings in Venice, 1980

Surviving Industrial Buildings, Venice, 1980

The map indicates the distribution of industrial buildings in 1980, although many of them had already been converted to other uses (or abandoned). The large concentration in the West is the Arsenal (and the Bacini). The concentration in the Southeast is on the reclaimed land in and around the modern Port. At the bottom of the map, the concentration on the East side of the Giudecca is the Stucky mill, recently redeveloped as a luxury hotel. The general pattern is obvious: industrial buildings occupy the city's periphery, and are almost entirely absent from the historical centre.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

David Goldblatt, No. 4 Shaft, President Steyn Gold Mine, 1969

David Goldblatt, No. 4 Shaft, President Steyn Goldmine, 1969

In the late 1960s, David Goldblatt took a series of photographs underground in the gold mines of South Africa. The justification for these badly degraded pictures had nothing to do with self-expression. On the contrary. For Goldblatt, the subject was so important as to both render the technical limitations of the pictures trivial by comparison, and to demand an absolute surrender of self. Goldblatt’s struggle with his equipment, which constantly broke down and jammed underground, paid homage to the miners’ struggle with their environment. Although visible blur and grain clearly draw attention to the photograph as an artefact, they are here paradoxically taken as proof that the reality of the mines is so powerful as to overwhelm the camera’s ability to contain it.

A similar tolerance of degradation can be observed in pictures of unique, newsworthy events, such as the famous photograph of Robert Kennedy bleeding to death. In pictures like this, the event violently breaks into the continuity of everyday life, and the degradation of the image mimics that violence. Goldblatt appropriated this rhetoric by treating the everyday realities and routines of work as if they were just as dramatic, heroic and uniquely unrepeatable as the fate of world leaders.

What interests me about Goldblatt's mine photographs is the notion of stepping right up to the edge of incoherence, but without ever stepping over it.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753

Gaetano Zompini, The Lantern Bearer, 1753


Gaetano Zompini, ‘The Lantern Bearer’, from Le Arti che vanno per via nella Città di Venezia, 1753

At night, I move backwards and forwards from the theatres to the casino,
I am the man who lights your way with a lantern,
I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me.


There is a long established tradition of genre painting in European art, in which poor people and tradesmen are presented in allegedly naturalistic surroundings for a respectable, middle class audience. In the nineteenth century, Venetian studio photographers like Carlo Naya picked up on this tradition, and supplemented their architectural views with posed images of Venetian urchins, fishermen, beggars, and lacemakers.

Zompini’s work is an unusually forceful and vivid example of genre illustration, whose first edition, published in 1753-4, was a commercial failure. His engravings, which depict tradesmen in the streets of Venice, were only rescued from obscurity by the local British consul, who sponsored a second edition.[1]

Many of Zompini’s subjects work in what we would now call service industries (as sellers of trinkets, snacks, drinks, and so on), catering to the needs of their social superiors. In this capacity, Zompini’s lantern bearer, like modern waiters, bellhops and shop assistants, is not only required to perform a specific task, but to be deferential, pleasant and cheerful as he does so. Nonetheless, his words strike a faintly sardonic, or even threatening, note. ‘I’ll go anywhere [you want], as long as you pay me’, he says, with the emphasis seemingly on the latter clause.

In modern Venice, the volume of visitors places unique strains on this kind of interaction, which are symbolised by a dramatic reversal of the terms of Zompini’s illustration. Today, waiters wearing tuxedos and bow ties move among customers dressed in singlets, shorts and sandals. Prices may vary significantly in cafes depending on whether the staff recognize you, and it is not uncommon for Venetians to deride oblivious foreigners in dialect.

[1] The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, eds J. Martineau and A. Robison, exhibition catalogue, 1994, p. 287.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Fulvio Roiter, Part 2

Fulvio Roiter, Carnival

[Continued from the previous post:]

With few exceptions, Roiter’s Carnival books concentrate on isolated human subjects or small groups of subjects, mostly young adults, who almost invariably wear a costume or a mask. The few attempts to render crowds are impressionistic and show them as homogenous masses of indistinguishable individuals. To put it another way, there are no images in the spirit of my own 37 Tourists (no. 10 in the main sequence), which is intended as an encyclopaedia of possible reactions to the presence of a camera. There is no literal overlap of images, but thematically the Carnival books are monotonous. Every new photograph asserts the same thing, over and over again. There is no evolution or inflection.[7]

It would be foolish to object to Carnival images on the basis that they are posed, since posing is the whole point. What matters is the quality of the direction and the acting, the complexity of the role assumed, and the intensity of the connection between photographer and subject. Roiter’s technical prowess has never been in doubt, but in these works his script and direction are simplistic. The drama rarely amounts to more than empty affirmation (‘Look at me!’) and Roiter does not actively engage his subjects.[8] To be more precise, he never challenges the adequacy or credibility of their performance. Nor do they challenge him. In Roiter’s Carnival, no-one is ugly, tired, drunk, miserable, hostile, uncooperative or even indifferent. Worse, Roiter is not interested in the backstage aspects of the experience; that is, in how the illusion is created and sustained.[9] The extent of the lost opportunity is suggested by the few images of children, which stand out precisely because the subjects have not yet learnt how they are supposed to respond to a camera.[10] Some of the shots of professional theatrical performances are also impressive, but for the opposite reason: that is, they show people capable of fully immersing themselves in their roles.

Everyone has to make a living, and Roiter’s Carnival books probably tell us more about the relationship between the publishing and tourism industries than they do about his individual photographic vision. I remain hopeful that an intelligently-edited retrospective will reveal an artist who understands both the nature of his own talent and the history of the city he loves.[11]

[7] Ivo Prandin, author of the introduction to Venice Masked, urges us not to seek the real Masks in the tumultuous carnival crowd in St. Mark’s square: you may not find them in the multitude. Instead, we should look in remote calli, silent and shady banks, little bridges under which a gondola slowly slides away, like human life wandering in the city maize [sic] (p. 8). The problem with this argument is that thirty-five of the forty-six images in Venice Masked are identifiably located in and around Piazza San Marco. Similarly, in Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, if we exclude the sixteen plates of theatrical performances, twenty-seven of the remaining thirty-seven images appear to have been taken in San Marco or its immediate environs. Of the other ten, six are obviously staged compositions, which were probably set in quieter areas because it would have been impossible to keep the background clear elsewhere. Another two (not by Roiter) are banal shots of boats, taken from a distance on telephoto lenses.

[8] His reliance on telephoto lenses is telling, since they allow him to photograph at a safe distance from his subjects. Since Roiter helpfully supplies technical information on each shot, it is possible to calculate the proportion of images taken on such a lens in the four books on Carnival. Taking the books in chronological order, this figure is 70%, 80%, 50% and 66% respectively. (For the purposes of this calculation, I count a 50mm lens as a moderate telephoto, but many shots were taken on significantly longer lenses.)

[9] There are only two images that show ‘technical support staff’: a theatre wardrobe assistant in plate 32 of Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, and a maskseller in plate 27 of Carneval. In addition, there are a couple of images showing subjects applying make-up, but in both cases they are adding final touches and are thus already fully ‘in character’.

[10] For example, the child distracted by a firework in plate 47 of Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione, which Roiter’s afterword correctly identifies as a crucial image.

[11] I have not had the opportunity to see the exhibition ‘Fulvio Roiter, Fotografie 1948-1978’, which toured Northern Italy c. 2003, but among the non-Venetian published work I would certainly recommend Ombrie: Terre de Saint François, which deservedly won the Prix Nadar, and remains one of the highpoints of Roiter’s career. In this book, texts written by or about Francis of Assisi are juxtaposed with images of rural Umbria in the 1950s. The insistence on ‘timelessness’ is no less aggressive than in the books on Carnival, but it is deployed to much better effect than in Venice, partly because (as in Roiter’s work on Spain in the 1950s) the relationship between text and image is more interesting.

Fulvio Roiter, Part 1

Fulvio Roiter, Carnival

One man almost single-handedly defined the photographic image of Venice in the late twentieth century: Fulvio Roiter. His output during a long career has been prolific and varied, but he has repeatedly returned to Venice, on which he has published an astonishing fourteen books (up to 2002).[1] Over the years, his approach has remained consistently simple and direct. He uses 35mm cameras and works without flash or other non-ambient lighting. From his third book on Venice onwards, he has worked exclusively in colour, using slide film to increase contrast and saturation. Since these films are ‘slow’ and therefore difficult to use in low light, and Roiter usually shoots hand-held, most of his shots have shallow depth-of-field (that is, a narrow area in focus), an effect that Roiter skilfully uses to isolate subjects from the background or to create unexpected emphases.

Roiter is strongly influenced by the humanist photojournalism of the 1950s, the period in which his career began. From his first book about Venice through to his latest, cats are content, children are playful, and tourists are for the most part respectful, appreciative and enthusiastic.[2] In a recent interview, he underlined his continuing hostility towards ‘critical’ photography, referring specifically to Oliviero Toscani, who was commissioned in 1999 to draw attention to the problems created in Venice by mass tourism.

‘[Y]ou do not see Venice in his advertising campaign. There are two dogs mating, sewer rats ... New York too has dogs mating and sewer rats ... They say it’s “a way of drawing attention to problems” … “Problems” is a word for intellectuals that is fashionable nowadays. I don't photograph them’.[3]

Roiter has produced no less than four publications on Carnival, which do not do justice to his talent, but since they are exemplary of the themes under discussion here, I have chosen them as case studies. Their weaknesses illustrate a consistent problem in Roiter’s books, which often contain introductions and / or commentary written by others. The text may refer to the image content in the sense of identifying particular buildings featured in the photographs, but it frequently ignores Roiter’s visual emphases: i.e. the text draws attention to features that Roiter has placed out of focus. In the later books, the introductory texts do not refer to Roiter at all.[4] Instead, the writers present cursory reviews of Venetian history and / or the history of Carnival, with scattered quotations, purple prose and incompetent translations in French, English and / or German.[5] Certainly none of the writers make any attempt to review the history of photographic representations of the city, or to place Roiter in it,[6] although a few make casual references to famous painters. The nadir is reached in Magic Venice in Carnival from 1987, in which the text is by Carlo della Corte and a translator who wisely chooses to remain anonymous.

Inside the Whirlpool of the Carnival of Venice rather than tiring oneself one is brought to life, if only artificially, by the thousands of visitors.

These visitors, perhaps in a confused way, continue to imagine the carnival as handed down to us by Gentile Bellini with his processional train ablaze with colours, or through Carpaccio’s image of gondolas coloured like dodgem cars. The world-wide success of Venice was due to this incredible coup d’oeil, this sea of colours arriving in St Mark’s Square like a whirlwind and then spreading everywhere, impregnating water and walls.

This city was, perhaps, the most colourful in the world, and the whole world wanted it this way, rushing there, forever prolonging the moment when, like a demiurge, the carnival filled it with the most dazzling of colours.


History is invoked, but in an indiscriminate and perfunctory manner, and only insofar as it underwrites the writer’s overinsistent evocation of a ‘whirlwind’ of colour. A diligent reader might note that anyone whose image of Carnival derives from the work of Bellini and Carpaccio would indeed be ‘confused’, since the paintings referred to depict religious processions – the polar opposite of the Carnival experience. Clearly such niceties are both beyond the grasp of the author and besides the point here.

[Discussion continues in the next post:]

[1] Venise à fleur d’eau (1954); Venezia Viva (Venice is Alive, 1973); Essere Venezia (Living Venice, 1977); La Laguna (The Lagoon, 1978); L’Oriente di Venezia (The Venetian Orient, 1980); Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione (Carnival in Venice: between the mask and reason, 1981); Carnevale (1985); Magic Venice in Carnival (1987); La Mia Venezia (My Venice, 1994); Venezia in Maschera (Venice Masked, 1995); Il Palazzo Ducale (The Ducal Palace, 1997); Venezia 1891-2001 (2000); Il Lido (with Lou Embo, 2001); and most recently Burano: Isola del merletto e del colore (Burano: Island of Lace and Colour, 2002). There may be other publications – I doubt that Roiter himself could recite them all from memory.

[2] With the partial exception of the second book, Venezia Viva, which may have been intended by the publisher and editorial team as a riposte to Giorgio Lotti’s Venezia Muore [Venice is Dying, 1970]. Venezia Viva has extensive commentary, and the images touch upon themes of pollution, conservation and restoration, but the best are informal portraits of gondoliers, labourers and children playing.

[3] Roiter is quoted on an Italian website at www.cesil.com/1299/solit10.htm. See also the quotation from Jean-Michel Folon used on the dust jacket of Living Venice: He has not taken pictures of TV antennae or of automobile wreckage; he has not taken pictures of war. The 20th century does not exist for Fulvio. He moves across the world and doesn’t see its folly. From Umbria to Brazil he goes on his way in search of a lost secret, in search of a light, in search of a warm human touch, in search of an eye in whose glance one may read – innocence newly found. Roiter’s attitude is also revealed in his comments on technique, which recall the programmatic statements of Henri Cartier-Bresson – for example, To photograph a wonderful masker from up close … is not difficult; on the contrary, it is all too easy. The difficult thing, in fact the true task … [is to obtain in fleeting circumstances] images of immediate and rigorous visual force. …. The eyes and the camera are [held] in a state of constant readiness (from the unpaginated afterword to Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione). Unfortunately, many of Roiter’s later Venetian images fail his own criterion of judgement.

[4] Venezia 1891-2001 is an exception to this rule among the other titles. It contains an illuminating introduction by Italo Zannier, who is an expert on the history of photography in Venice (and whose various publications were crucial aids to my own research). Venezia Viva and Carnevale a Venezia: tra maschera e ragione also contain brief, general descriptions of collaboration between Roiter and the writer(s). Also, Roiter’s two most successful books Essere Venezia and La Mia Venezia are at least graced with texts by competent writers.

[5] Roiter often contributes a brief preface or afterword to his books, and / or provides a table of technical information, which lists lenses, exposures and films used for each shot, along with locations (although not dates - significantly).

[6] Again, with the notable exception of Italo Zanier and Venezia 1891-2001.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Canaletto, The Stonemason's Yard, c. 1726-30

Canaletto, The Stonemason's Yard

A humble, untidy, unfamiliar area of the city, tucked away from tourist gaze, is the scene of the daily round of labour, for women, it should be noted, as for men. …. The city is lived in and used: washing is hung out on lines, and rooms are aired, and floors are swept. Above all, art is being created in the midst of it: stone is being chipped and crafted to make a building beautiful ….
Michael Levey[1]

The history of photographic representations of Venice begins long before the invention of photography – with the painted views of Canaletto and his eighteenth-century contemporaries, although in fact they often adopt fictional viewpoints that would be difficult or impossible to emulate with a camera: usually above head-height, and sometimes in mid-canal. They also depict scenes under blue sky and sunlight. Atmospheric effects are eschewed in favour of clarity of line and definition of form. The habit of representing Venice under fog and snow is a much later one, which is bound up with the idea of the city in decline – a site for nostalgia rather than for scientific examination. Under fog, the city becomes mysterious and elusive; under the clear light of Canaletto, it is rational and explicable: an Enlightenment city rather than a Romantic one.

[1] The Glory of Venice: Art in the Eighteenth Century, eds J. Martineau and A. Robison, exhibition catalogue, 1994, p. 43.