Dream of Venice Architecture was a joy and a fascination all its own because in it Locktov assembled some three dozen international architects and architectural writers who explained the many difficulties overcome by those Italians who chose to build a city of gargantuan stone buildings and site them on mud flats. So that was a second aspect of Venice: the miracle of its birth.
And now we come to a third aspect of Venice, the element that makes it a true trilogy. Why Dream of Venice in Black and White in a world awash in color photography? It’s because Locktov is examining a third aspect of the city, and doing so in a classic trilogy format. It’s not a single narrative broken into three parts; it’s one subject examined from three entirely different viewpoints. In examining these three aspects of the city we have gone from admirers to architects to eyes, but different eyes this time, eyes that look closely, that examine, that seek to understand the intricacies, which so many of us dismiss as the commonplace. They’re photographers in search of what is sadly becoming a rarity—the people who actually live in Venice.
Venice is different from any city I know, both the sheer beauty of the city itself and the way in which it was built. I never really read on it without learning something fantastical, and Scarpa’s Introduction was no different. From it I learned that the squares that are such a sociable part of Venice were originally not designed for that purpose at all. A city built on wooden pilings in mud flats has no natural wells, but the ancient Venetians got around that most ingeniously. Scarpa explains that rain water was originally gathered in those squares and then transported to a sand-filled cistern for filtering and cleaning, and eventually to a central well that supplied the city with fresh water for centuries before the advent of an aqueduct.
But, mostly, that Introduction is a personal insight into how it feels to be one of just 53,000 people who still actually live in historic Venice—and that’s by design. In discussing the Introduction with me later, Locktov said, “There are erudite articles and even books about this precarious time for Venice, but what I wanted was for Tiziano to share with us what it feels like at this critical juncture to be a resident of Venice, confronting her conflicts. In his inimitable style he writes of the new inhabitants while weaving in history and unimaginable beauty. We never lose sight of the fact that Venice is a place where both the sacred and the profane co-exist.”
“I live next to tourists,” Scarpa writes. “I live alongside them. What I mean is: I don’t just meet strangers on the street; tourists are my neighbors. I live here, and I am always the same. They change. My continuity borders on their impermanence.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that the very rich are different from you and me, but really, they’re not. They’re just greed writ large. The ones who are different from the rest of us are the truly creative. Photographers, the really good ones who point their cameras at the commonplace and create a masterpiece, are able to see things the rest of us can’t.
These master photographers are often black and white photographers because of what they’re striving for. They will tell you there is realism in black and white photography that simply cannot be had in color. There are artistic reasons for choosing black and white over color at times. Without the distraction of color the photographer sees light differently and finds it easier to emphasize emotion. It amplifies the use of negative space, highlights shape, form, and pattern in the image, and because those qualities have been brought to the forefront, they help focus on composition.
There is often a deeper, more profound reason for a photographer like Gianni Berengo Gardin almost always choosing black and white for his photography: veritas. That’s a ten dollar word for truth which I chose to use, not because it’s Harvard University’s logo or even because it’s a ten dollar word but because it brings us closer to the underlying concept. Truth. But not just truth. Absolute truth, that which is there whether we are aware of it or not. “I chopped down the cherry tree is a truth,” but veritas is a deeper truth, the type of thing that philosophers seek out in their many books, and some people go in search of with a camera.
Berengo Gardin has focused most of his attention on photographs of people because, as he put it, he does it “to tell their story, but underneath it all was a basic need to defend their dignity. That’s what really interests me.”
Those who admire his photography often describe his photographs as beautiful, but that has never been his goal. When he was very young he spent some time with an older, renowned photographer, Ugo Mulas, who taught him, “Beautiful photos might be aesthetically perfect and well-constructed, but they don’t say anything. A good photo tells you things, stories… it communicates something. Beautiful photos communicate too, but what they communicate is useless.”
Locktov naturally looked for this very quality when she gathered the photographs used in this volume, but then she went them one better. She took away the safety net. There are no captions on these pictures, no profound thoughts, nothing to tell us what to look for in these photographs, no added verbiage of any kind. As she put it, “I decided to isolate the photography without text, so it existed solely on the strength of the image. Part of the beauty of black and white is that it documents life without the distraction of color. I felt any additional text (more than identifying the photographer and a title) would minimize, rather than add to the narrative inherent in the images.”
What we are privileged to see in these sublime photographs is a Venice altogether different, not only from that depicted in the first two volumes of this series, but one that is sadly different from what one sees if one visits Venice. Which is both good and bad, I suppose. Good in the sense that it exists, bad—or more precisely, sad—that what we see in these photographs is so different from what we see in the summer months with the cruise ships and the noise and the tourists. Here is the other Venice, the real Venice if you will.
The photography more than lives up to Locktov’s vision for the book, but you will note that I have not described any of the photographs, and I will not do so now. This is not a book to be casually leafed through. It’s a collection of brilliant photographs that will reward those who take the time to study them, the kind that makes one itch to frame a print for one’s home.
Any professional photographer pays attention to composition, but those who eschew color photography for black and white have a tendency to pay particular attention to the many separate parts that become the whole. And that, in turn is why Locktov followed up her bold choice of black and white photography with another: no captions or descriptions. It will surely seem odd for one who clearly pays so much attention to words to say this, but she’s right. There are times when you don’t tell people the truth. You let them find it.