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Friday, September 10, 2010

Up: San Marco, Venice, 2008

San Marco Vertical (Mar 08)

Michel de Certeau’s book The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) famously begins with the narrator atop the World Trade Center in New York, enjoying the godlike perspective available from that vantage point. For de Certeau, this perspective fulfils the promise of the modern map, which produces knowledge through abstraction: by collating data and representing the results on an inhuman scale and from an inhuman viewpoint using the device of orthographic projection.[1] The viewer of the map is master of all he surveys, but only at the cost of alienation from the object of his knowledge.

De Certeau contrasts the map with the itinerary, the latter always implicitly tied to the point-of-view of a pedestrian, who is moving through the city rather than hovering above it. I have argued elsewhere (see this article and this chapter on 'The Spy as Flaneur') that Venice is the city of the itinerary par excellence, in part because it is almost impossible to obtain an elevated viewpoint: the only obvious platforms are the belltowers in San Marco and on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. Everywhere else, lines of sight are cut off by the confines of particular streets or alleys or canals.

De Certeau’s schema does not, however, take account of another kind of looking: that of the pedestrian, lost on the ground, who pauses to look up. To look up is to remove oneself momentarily from the flow of traffic, since anyone adopting such a posture immediately becomes an obstacle to that traffic. To look up is to exchange negotiation for contemplation: to prostrate oneself before the object of one’s gaze; to acknowledge its power; to become vulnerable. In Venice, only tourists look up. Residents signal their proprietary relationship to the space they occupy by moving through it as aggressively and quickly as possible. For residents, up does not exist.

In an earlier post, I described how, according to a self-imposed rule, my early photographs of Venice had to depict a space from which a pedestrian could look back. By definition, this meant that I could not look up – unless I happened to be at the base of a bridge or some other elevated structure that incorporated a pedestrian thoroughfare (as in this example, which shows the bridge at Rialto).

In 2008, I returned to Venice after a three year absence, and I decided to reverse the terms of this original prohibition. Now I would only look up with the camera, and I would use a telephoto lens to isolate details, something I had avoided doing previously (most of the photographs in the main sequence were taken on a normal or wide-angle lens). I often carry out exercises like this when faced with a creative impasse: i.e. I do the opposite of whatever the previous rule was, and see what effect this has on the outcome.

What happens to photographic space when you look up? The photograph above and the four included in the previous two blog entries (here and here) show the results.

The visual iconography of Piazza San Marco is so inescapable and so familiar that it becomes an interesting exercise to see how much of the context can be removed before the subject becomes unrecognisable. I had previously conducted similar experiments with the human figure: How small does such a figure have to be on the negative before it ceases to be identifiable as a person? How large does it have to be before it becomes identifiable as a specific individual, who can theoretically be distinguished from other individuals on the basis of evidence provided by the photograph alone? I tried to work in the space between these two thresholds whenever possible (see nos 11, 12, 21 in the main sequence).

The image above literally has no background. Early photographs often have blown white skies as a result of the sensitivity of the emulsions to blue light. In such photographs, the sky is white because it contains an excess of light. Here the opposite is true. The sky contains no information whatsoever, which exaggerates the effect of decontextualisation, but the subject – reduced to a blank white flagpole and the tip of the belltower – is still unmistakeable.

It is a peculiarly defamiliarising effect to walk around San Marco and imagine that the space that matters is not the one under your feet but the empty layer of air above your head, but this effect was already anticipated in the opening chapter of Pistols! Treason! Murder!, in which the protagonist is suspended in mid-air in San Marco, asphyxiating at the end of a rope on a gallows.

[1] The earliest orthographic maps of Venice date from the early eighteenth century (although there is a solitary seventeenth-century example).

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