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Street Photography in Venice and Padua

How Living in Venice Inspired Me to Get off My Backside and Start Seeing What I Could Find!

 Gregory Segal, E = mc2, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Venice 


The eye in this city acquires an autonomy similar to that of a tear. The only difference is that it doesn't sever itself from the body but subordinates it totally. After a while – on the third or fourth day here – the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye's carrier, as a kind of submarine to its now dilating, now squinting periscope. Of course, for all its targets, its explosions are invariably self-inflicted: it's your own heart, or else your mind, that sinks; the eye pops up to the surface. This of course owes to the local topography, to the streets – narrow, meandering like eels – that finally bring you to a flounder of a campo with a cathedral in the middle of it, barnacled with saints and flaunting its Medusa-like cupolas. No matter what you set out for as you leave the house here, you are bound to get lost in these long, coiling lanes and passageways that beguile you to see them through, to follow them to their elusive end, which usually hits water, so that you can't even call it a cul-de-sac...It surrounds you like frozen seaweed, and the more you dart and dash about trying to get your bearings, the more you get lost.

Joseph Brodsky - Prose: Excerpt from Watermark.

Brodsky's comment that one's body becomes a mere vessel for the eye truly encapsulates the bombardment to the senses one faces when entering the city of Venice for the first time. People flow like traffic, weaving in and out of small and narrow roads, merging into a sea of color that moves head-long into the fray. Meanwhile, mobs ferry themselves off in bustling, light-green vaporetti to reach Rialto Bridge, The Academia or Tronchetto, in which sitting or standing provides an indication of your localness. 

Sellers of Murano glass, trinkets, and cheap plastic toys line the major highways, whilst gondoliers slouch on the side of bridges, cigarettes in hand, passing time until a traveler approaches. Immigrant boys wander, throwing spinning lights up into the air or slamming neon colored putty into the ground, solemnly waiting for their next dollar. While bright orange spritzes, expensive bottles of champagne and Cicchetti of every kind float on silver platters that glare in the sun. All of which is enveloped in a mix of Byzantine, Gothic, & Renaissance architecture, that would make any claustrophobic's knees buckle if removed from the center of Saint Mark's Square.

This buzz of excitement is contagious. Each street gorges the senses, either through hysteria or serenity; one is either given time to think or none at all. Swamped on Calle del Fontego with the shoppers and snap-shooters, you can find respite by turning a left or right, where a Bacari is but a few paces and an espresso accessible in a matter of moments. Even in these instances of solace, one never remains alone, for the voices of the past seem to echo, reverberating off the walls, each pavement, and every painting.

I Want My Hat Back.

Gregory Segal, I Want My Hat Back, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Venice

How I Started:

I am by no means a professional photographer. Even labeling myself as an amateur seems rather rich, for before I came to live in Venice (October 1st, 2017) I had rarely picked up a camera, outside of snapping the family after a dinner date. However, after reading Beaumont Newhall's The History of Photography I gained an interest in the photographic process. 

My enthusiasm for the subject was particularly heightened through my study of the Street & War Photography of the 1940-1970's. The frenetic style of Gary Winogrand, the encapsulation of life within a Walker Evans or the disturbing realism of Weegee drew me in and made me truly appreciate the medium. 

Venice, like New York or London, inspires one to pick up a camera. Not only is the environment rich and diverse with different colors, textures, buildings, and objects, but the people who occupy this city are just as vivid. From the businessmen who wear tailor-made suits and custom-made boots to the hipster, adorning tartan trousers and a tilted fedora, Venice has it all. Everyone is rushing or waiting, coated in sunshine or a pea soup that creates an intensity worth capturing. 

Venice is for wanderers. To see the city you have to get lost, to accept that you do not know, that you do not understand and that to learn you must make mistakes. One has to turn off the main roads, to remove oneself from familiarity, meet dead ends, double back, re-trace one's steps and start all over again.  

“The Road goes ever on and on

Down from the door where it began.

Now far ahead the Road has gone,

And I must follow, if I can,

Pursuing it with eager feet,

Until it joins some larger way

Where many paths and errands meet.

And whither then? I cannot say”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Learning how to take a photograph is a similar process. You have to accept the inevitable... you're going to get lost, mistakes will happen and dead-ends will be plentiful. Personally, I have always found this difficult to accept. I want to be good, to get something right, to not fail but to succeed. However, this unrealistic expectation will only inhibit your ability to achieve. 

Errors are inescapable and are ultimately necessary if development is to occur. Photography is liberated from this initial angst. When a split-second determines whether you capture a shot, you don't have time to think whether or not it will be any just have to go for it, snap it and see. Of course, afterward one can and will be critical of this moment, however, at that juncture you just have to do it, without hesitation, removed from fear.

Depp & Carter

Gregory Segal, Depp & Carter, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Venice

How I Shoot:

As I've mentioned, I'm not a professional. I had minimal equipment, purely working with a Canon EOS 1300D and an EFS 18-55mm lens. My technical knowledge was virtually non-existent, outside of a few theoretical ideas on Street-Photography that I picked up from a History of Photography course. I decided to just run with what I had, forget the details for now and just have fun with it. My method was simplistic, to say the least:

  1. Look.
  2. Identify.
  3. Shoot.
  4. Move.
  5. Shoot Again.

I understood that taking the Ansel Adams approach of looking, waiting and being patient would not be appropriate under my given circumstances. My kit was insufficient, I did not have a long or wide angle lens or even a stand, and my ability to frame shots was shaky at best. I wanted raw images, focused on the people I saw, the individuals I found interesting. 

I decided to go full out Gonzo, walk the streets with no direction, aimlessly parade, dart in and out of canopies, keep the finger on the trigger and hope that something stuck.

This Old Man

Gregory Segal, This Old Man, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Padua

My buddy and I would venture out on a Sunday morning, with a camera on our shoulder and a paper-back in our pocket, the early morning sun hitting the back of our necks, energizing us for the adventure ahead. We felt like explorers, breaking new ground, treading on the un-treaded. Each of us would cover a different territory, click-clicking as we went. 

After comparing shots we would visit the nearest bar, sip Moretti's and cigarettes whilst discussing the writings of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Thompson. We would take both pleasure and pictures of the chaotic rumbling and bumbling swathe of pilgrims, who jostled up the cobbled pathways. And as they went, so did we, continuing on the stretch, attempting to find new sites, smells and sounds to investigate.   

A Bike With a Bag And a Bell That Rings

Gregory Segal, A Bike with A Bag & A Bell that Rings, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Padua

On other occasions, I would stand at the center of the Ponte della Paglia, ready to fish, like those on the opposite bank, dotting in-between passers-by, whilst intermittently reeling myself back in to observe the whole scene when I became overwhelmed by the crowd. The place was perfect for shots that are up-close-and-personal. 

People cross this stretch to get a glimpse of the Ponte dei Sospiri (The Bridge of Sighs), whilst many others continued onward to reach the Giardini della Biennale. Everyone was always moving, looking, chatting, lapping up a gelato, or taking a cheeky selfie. 

The camera recorded it all, every precise articulation of the human body was documented, from the conception of a smile, beginning to creep in from the corner of the mouth to the pronunciation of an outstretched forearm, cutting through the air, pushing the body forward like the pistons of a locomotive. 

Time froze with every click, in which, nine-times-out-of-10 a shot would be an unaesthetic, uninteresting or poorly framed slice of space. However, with persistence and the repeated bang of a button, some semblance of success began to occur. 

You're always trying to capture one true moment, a piece of reality that is, at its most, both honest and deceitful. For in presenting a singular moment one is simultaneously depicting a reality, whilst also denying many others.

Too Cool for School

Gregory Segal, Too Cool for School, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Venice

Although it is a relatively simple matter to theoretically understand what makes a good photograph, it is another to comprehend these ideas internally so that one can put them into practice. 

Despite the fact that I could quite easily determine which pictures I liked and those that I didn't, my approach of taking photographs had not changed even though the quality of some were significantly higher than that of others. To develop a feel for what works and what does not obviously takes a great deal of practice. 

Initially, one is functioning on a semi-subconscious reaction to their surroundings, largely unaware or more precisely un-deciding of the objects and people that should be included within the image. 

It is then through an analysis of the results and a trial and error process that one gains the confidence to make conclusions on what items should be included, how the image should be framed, and at which moment the curtain should fall.

The Baby on Board

Gregory Segal, The Baby on Board, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Venice

The image below (Dandelion Daydream) is a good example of how important one's position is when taking a photograph. The image in question was taken during a trip to Murano, an island off the main portion of Venice, famous for its multi-colored houses. The depicted girl was waiting to have her photo taken by a friend, holding her chosen dandelion close to her chest. 

Upon seeing this, I knew that a fantastic shot was to be had, so long as I could position myself correctly and wait patiently for the upcoming stream of dandelion seeds. Her companion was located in-front, attempting to portray the girl en-face, whilst I decided that a profile portrait would be more effective. 

In composing the picture from a frontal position, much of the focus from the intended protagonist was lost. Behind the subject sat numerous distractions, from people walking about, a small strip of ocean, moored boats, and even a dustbin. 

Although these objects can possibly be of interest in certain situations, providing greater context, depth of perspective and even elements of humor, they were, however, mere disturbances within this scenario. By keeping the background plain, removed from any interference, the action becomes isolated. All of our attention is placed on the girl, what she is wearing and doing. 

Additionally, in using a simplified backing the dandelion seeds become clearly visible, in all likelihood, it would have been difficult to see this within the picture taken by my competing photographer due to his choice in positioning. It is from this experience that I learned that it was not only important to capture a great moment but to shoot that moment within the most optimum position.

Dandelion Daydream

Gregory Segal, Dandelion Daydream, Canon EOS 1300D: EFS 18-55mm, Murano

How Do I End?

So, if you have been wondering... can I do it? The answer is yes you can. The photographs that I have displayed in this article are by no means earth-shattering, virtuoso pieces. They are not works that required incredible expensive gear or editing software. 

Just a standard Canon and iPhoto. Of course, if you invest in these areas the greater the breadth of options you will have at your disposal. 

However, these items are not necessary. In order to take a competent photograph, all that is required is a camera and a good eye. Ultimately, this remains difficult to accomplish. However, with practice, this skill will come. The most important component is to get out and do it. 

Although having a few lovely images at the end of the day is always a fantastic feeling, what was even more rewarding was the going out and looking. In taking photographs around Venice I began to understand its geography, culture, and people. 

I was glad that I came away with a greater understanding of the art and a handful of memories but it was this appreciation that was a far richer reward. So, if you are uncertain, hesitant, or a little worried about taking photos of random strangers, just ask yourself, "Do I want an adventure? Do I want to push myself into unknown territory? Can I allow myself to fail, learn, and succeed?" If your answer is yes, then street photography is for you. If your answer no... then street photography is a must for you.

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