a guest post by John Aycock
Venice is a hard place to take photographs. Not that it isn’t one of the most photogenic cities on the planet—it is—but everything, everything has been recorded in its minutest detail for centuries. In woodcuts and paintings, on film and now with digital cameras, it’s nearly impossible to see Venice with fresh eyes and create an image that no one else has captured.
What makes Venice even stranger for travel photography is that it is the reverse of most destinations. As an amateur photographer whose primary reason for traveling isn’t taking pictures, I carry little in the way of equipment: currently just a small Canon PowerShot SX220HS ultrazoom. Stashed in my jacket, it’s not always painfully obvious that I’m a tourist until I start shooting. Venice, however, is the other way around; to blend in is to be a tourist. Everyone seems to have high-end cameras with enormous lenses phallically dangling from their necks, and I’m sure not a minute goes by without someone’s flash desperately trying to illuminate the Grand Canal in its entirety.
One way to create a rare photo in Venice is to take it during the golden hour. Hardly an epiphany, surely this is an obvious photographic realization. The magical property that makes such a Venetian photo so rare nowadays, though, is that an early morning shot doesn’t feature a hundred people milling about lost, along with another hundred taking selfies with their phones in front of some landmark. It’s not about light; it’s about solitude.
And so I woke up before dawn, on the last full day of vacation. I dressed in the dark of the hotel room, and my girlfriend, somewhat less keen than I was, wisely stayed in bed sleeping.
This was not my first early-morning expedition on this trip, to be fair. Two of the mainstays of Venice tourism are the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Basilica, along with its accompanying square, the Piazza San Marco. They are joined by a labyrinth of narrow pedestrian streets and bridges, laid out in the same way they were when Galileo and plague victims roamed the city. Earlier in the week I had targeted the Rialto, in a similar albeit clumsier dawn walkabout.
Unaccustomed to the hotel room, I had forgotten that opening the coat closet automatically exploded light into the room, and my girlfriend’s sleep became the first photography-related casualty of the trip. All that, only to discover that a) the light on the Rialto is really not terribly spectacular at dawn, and b) you can’t take a tourist-free picture of the Rialto even first thing in the morning.
But this last morning of vacation, I was prepared. My clothes, prepared in a darkened heap, slipped on ninja-like as I dressed and grabbed my camera. I had a plan: I would hurry to the Rialto and try again to take a picture sans humans. Then, to nearby St. Mark’s, where I would see the first light on the water. I knew the weather forecast and the sunrise time. Nothing could go wrong.
I did not see the bird responsible. Walking down the narrow street to the Rialto, I heard what sounded like water, dropping on my hat. How odd, I thought, it isn’t raining. There should be no water dripping on me in the middle of the street.
Indeed, there was not. This bird was clearly a master of the diarrheal arts, an ornithological da Vinci; I was the canvas for its Last Supper, in both a figurative and a literal sense. My pants, jacket, shirt and hat—covered. The dilemma: to go clean up and miss the shots, or forge ahead with my new-found fecal fresco?
Dawn at St. Mark’s is exactly how you would imagine it: the ancient buildings, the warm sun lighting the bell towers and silhouetting the gondolas, the water gently lapping on the docks, the odd seagull foraging in the garbage from the night before, and a homeless person quietly dozing on a bench by a former palace. A handful of steadfast, jet-lagged photographers encamped with their fancy equipment and massive tripods. And me, with a point-and-shoot, wearing a full litre of bird excrement.
After parading around Venice’s attractions for that golden hour, decorated head-to-toe in pigeon paint, I think I can now upgrade. I am no longer a tourist; I hereby claim the title “dedicated amateur photographer.” I think my wardrobe and I have earned it.
Ironically, I didn’t care much for the photos I took that morning, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard my girlfriend laugh quite so hard.
John Aycock is a university professor and a photographer wanna-be.
You can see some of his work at http://500px.com/aycock.