Sunday, June 7, 2009

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.

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