THE CHARM OF ROME IS THAT EACH BIG STREET LEADS TO A SMALLER STREET WHERE YOU MUST ABANDON THE CAR AND PROCEED ON FOOT BEFORE YOU GET TO YET ANOTHER CHURCH TWO BLOCKS AWAY.
This week I would like to continue discussing how you can make your travel images a little more personal. We all have faced the "problem" of our travel photos looking like more of the same photos we have already seen multiple times on Instagram. We are in new and strange places, bombarded with visual excitement, and unsure of how to react and create imagery that will reflect our own view of the world. Last week I suggested focusing on details; this week I will try to extoll the possibilities of concentrating on the ordinary, quiet, and typical streets of the new cities that you are meeting for the first time.
SIENNA, ITALY'S LARGEST "HILL TOWN", DOESN'T EVEN PRETEND TO HAVE REAL STREETS FOR CARS.
In my world this is not "street" photography, in that I remain much too intimidated to actually make images of strangers. Let's call these "streetscapes" or "urban landscapes", where my landscape photography meets my preferred urban environment. Of course there is considerable overlap with architectural photography and my interest in details, but here I try to illustrate the form of the street. What is it like to walk down these streets, and how is it different from walking in Portland? Can my imagery bring the viewer in contact with an urban environment that they might have never experienced? Or remind them of what they loved and experienced themselves in Italy?
The Italian streetscape, even in Rome, contains hints that this is not our version of city life. This ubiquitous sign confused me, even though I knew that Italians still smoked way too much. Then my friend who lived in Rome took me on the ordinary route to the tram. First we had to stop for an espresso in a narrow storefront with no seats made totally out of chrome. Then it was time to go the tobacconist, which really existed to sell tram tickets as well as cigarettes. Only then would you make your way to the tram stop. There was no rush to catch your tram because you could see both the one you had just missed and the one that you could catch next - they literally came every two minutes.
THESE STREETS THEN DEVOLVE INTO ALLEYS THAT YOU SHARE WITH NEIGHBORS.
In concentrating on the streetscape, I try to avoid the usual monumental architecture we all came to see and photograph. Of course I give those subjects a try, but I realize that it is very difficult to have a "new" take on the Vatican, for instance, especially if you are seeing it for the first time. That kind of visual exploration is probably best left to photographers who have lived in these places for a very long time. So in these images I try to stay away from the famous buildings, and even the famous parks or squares, but to try to illustrate the city with an image of an ordinary street. I hope to illustrate Italy, but not the Italy that everyone else has seen over and over. I was here, and I noticed something, and I hope to show it to you, and elicit a response. I try to do that all of the time, but in my travel images I place renewed emphasis on avoiding the obvious.
THE MOST IMPORTANT FACADE OF A BUILDING MIGHT NOT EVEN BE ON THE STREET, BUT HIDDEN IN A COURTYARD.
The Italian street is so different from America in that it predates the automobile by multiple centuries, and usually makes almost no attempt to accommodate the automobile in any way that might be characterized as rational. Even when it tries to include cars it runs into the anarchist strain in Italian life. The Italian way of coping with traffic that includes streetcars, taxies, Vespas, bicycles, and pedestrians that run the gamut from models to nuns is probably more closely related to the streets of the early Twentieth Century Lower East Side of New York than any street we are familiar with today. What I try to show in my studies of the smaller and quieter side of the Italian city is the way the absence of the grid teases and delights the walker, only slowly revealing what is around the bend - even if it is a major monument of global architectural history. The organic nature of these streets is further compounded by their overwhelming verticality. I grew up with the "canyons" of New York, but they are nothing like centuries-old five-story piles of stucco and stone that line "streets" that are maybe a dozen feet wide. At least you are probably not going to be pelted with the contents of a bed pan anymore, but this is not the American street of sidewalks and traffic controls. Even when you walk alone, you know that the street is for pedestrians like you since anything else will cause untold problems and might even be dangerous.
ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY, RIGHT ON THE STREET
This little covered arcade in Florence just happens to be one of the first and most important architectural artifacts of the Renaissance. It was the revolutionary front facade of the first hospital in the city state. I recognized it from my architectural history books, but I am an architect. More importantly for most pedestrians, after more than five hundred years, it still kept the rain off their heads as they walked through the neighborhood.
And then you get to Venice. Once you get over the fact that the streets are really waterways, you then discover that you will be walking on the sides of those canals on streets that lead to thousands of little bridges and then to dead ends that are someone's front door. You will get lost even if you know exactly where you are going. For me the charm is not the Grand Canal, but the little side canals and the walks that lead to the inevitable doubling back. Walking around this Venice is the only way to escape the Disneyland of the main streets and piazzas. The charm is that once you get lost you will be alone, and might experience the "real" Venice you are dreaming of, even though you might be only one hundred feet away from thousands of fellow travelers.
BACK STREET, CANAL, AND BRIDGE IN VENICE, WITH HUMBLE ROWBOATS AND TOURIST GONDOLAS]
VIEW OF A SMALL CANAL FROM A BRIDGE - WHAT'S AROUND THE BEND?
ANOTHER BRIDGE AND MORE APARTMENTS, BUT YOU CAN'T GET THERE UNLESS YOU HAVE A BOAT, OR YOU DOUBLE BACK.
A TYPICAL VENETIAN DEAD END WHERE YOU EITHER KNOW SOMEONE WHO LIVES THERE, OR SHEEPISHLY TURN AROUND AND RETRACE YOUR STEPS.
One of the most wonderful aspects of walking in such historic environments is that sometimes you don't even know what is about to happen unless you are staring at your map instead of watching your step.
WHEN'S THE LAST TIME YOU TRIED TO PARK NEXT PIECE OF WORLD HISTORY?
This is a small street about a block away from the piazza in front of one of the most important buildings in the architecture of Western civilization, The Pantheon from Ancient Rome. This Temple of All of the Gods is more than two thousand years old, and the piazza must slope down almost a story because the front door is still at the level of the street before those two thousand years of dust and Romans filled in the surrounding city. But from a block away it is just part of the present-day city.
AND THEN JUST LIKE THAT, YOU ARE IN ANCIENT ROME.
I hope you have enjoyed walking down some streets in Italy. These scenes are more than twenty years old, but I am confident that they have not really changed at all. The images have all benefited from post processing since the differences in light levels along these narrow streets are similar to those found in a forest. I routinely had to really raise the shadows, while still keeping some level of "murkiness" to maintain the reality of the street. Often I found that a black and white conversion led to a more realistic image despite the lack of color. I encourage you to try your hand at imagery of the ordinary streets even when you travel to a very new urban environment.