The water taxi bumped to a stop at the side entrance of Ca’ Gottardi, the wooden door swung open above us, a hand reached down, and a cheerful “Buon Giorno!” greeted us from inside. The tide was at ebb so we had to ungracefully clamber up to the floor at shoulder height. The motoscafo driver passed our luggage up and was quickly away. In a moment we found ourselves in the lobby of the hotel that would be our home for nine days, albeit in two locations.
We were here to photograph the Carnevale di Venezia, Venice’s equivalent to Rio’s Carnival and New Orleans’s Mardi Gras. I had no idea what to expect, but in two days we would be joined by Jim Zuckerman, who would show me and eight other photographers how to gather the best images of the celebration. I quickly learned that Venice’s version of Carnival is not at all like the two weeks of drunken revelry happening simultaneously in New Orleans. Sure, it’s crowded and noisy—it could not be otherwise with three million visitors on a small island—but even on the main streets and canals it’s tame by comparison. Fine by me. This Carnival is noted for its elaborate costumes and masks; that’s what I wanted to photograph.
I already knew that you had to go where the models with the costumes are to photograph them, and the most popular place is St. Marks Square, so that’s where we appeared before dawn on our first morning. It was empty except for a scattering of photographers. Over the next couple of days I learned how this works….But first, who are they. Photographers call them “models” but in fact they are extremely dedicated costuming hobbyists. Most spend a year creating their costume and never use them twice at Venice. They love to be photographed and they do show up at St. Marks Square before dawn. Just not when rain–which can ruin a costume–threatens. Ordinarily a few or a dozen, and several times that many photographers, are there before dawn. More drift in over time, but photographers drift in even faster until by an hour after dawn, mobs are dense and elbows are sharp. Shooting at St. Marks is frustrating, but over the week, with advice from Jim Zuckerman, I developed a more zen-like attitude and found I could do well and enjoy it more.
St. Marks is the most popular place to shoot models and every one of them shows up there at least once in the week before Lent. I went there every dawn but one. Better tactics include either finding them elsewhere in the city or making special arrangements, and those are where Jim Zuckerman’s help was priceless.
The models talk with each other and often agree to meet at such-and-such a place to pose for photographs. Jim was plugged in to many of those discussions, so our group could be there before they arrived. The models’ presence always drew a crowd, so we had a limited time to work unimpeded. One good example was the Scala Contarini del Bovolo, shown here. Once the models arrived it was like—to those of my generation, at least—a refined version of Laugh-In‘s joke wall, with subjects appearing first at one window before moving to another. Each was bathed in beautiful, soft sky light backed up by the shade of the building interior. A photographer’s dream. The distortion from the sharp upward perspective can be partly corrected (don’t overdo it) in Photoshop. But bring a long lens. My 105 was too short and the 100-300 was regrettably back in the hotel room. Of the twenty-nine images in Masks of Venice, I shot six at Scala Contarini.
Another way is to book some space and engage a model for a private shoot. The models never charge for their work and scrupulously refuse tips, but booking multiple public rooms at an elegant hotel for two hours can cost a thousand dollars. That’s what we (Jim) paid for the use of Ca’ Sagredo, the palatial 16th century home of the Sagredo family, now one of the luxury hotels on the Grand Canal (Ca’ is short for casa, house). We bit nails waiting for the model because of the intermittent rain. Going anywhere in Venice always requires walking and she would rightfully cancel rather than ruin her costume. As it was, the antique harp that Jim engaged did cancel for that reason, but Solange Merentier appeared and worked hard for two hours. I used two images from Ca’ Sagredo, but alas, not this one.
At Carnival time the sidewalks are crowded, the hotels are booked solid, and the better restaurants require reservations. Everyone is busy except the grumpy, layabout gondoliers. Gondolas are everywhere, but most are parked. Gondoliers have their standard tour that they will take you on for about one hundred euros. Want something custom? Like a paddle back and forth with a model on a secluded canal not lined with fiberglass boats with Evinrudes on back?
“I’ll pay double.”
Jim was getting panicky because he’d not been able to engage a gondola for a private shoot. Then on the afternoon of our last day as he hustled around town looking for cooperation he found one. The grumpy gondolier behind the beautiful Eve Sammaritano in the blue dress and blue parasol is my model-in-the-gondola shot. I like it. No Evinrudes or Chinese tourists in the background. If your subject is inside the gondola, bring a wide angle. My 24 would have been adequate, but the 14 I borrowed was better.
Every photographer knows the concept of the “sweet spot.” Every shot has one, maybe two, optimum positions to shoot from. Move a little to the right or left and something bad happens—a hidden trash can appears, a lamp post becomes centered on the subject’s head, or whatever. The best photographer finds that spot first and the rest of us are, well, second best. Our little group worked well together and we could line up on top of each other or wait our turn; if the model was ours she wouldn’t move. Public spaces are far different. The crowds are huge with many photographers eager to get one shot of every model. They will push you aside or squat in front of you, shoot a couple, and hopefully move on. Soon I learned to “Slow down, Dumbo. Quality, not quantity.” I learned to slide into place and move as someone better positioned finished. Eventually I would be in the sweet spot and, if the model hadn’t departed, get my shots. “Duh,” you say. Well, yeah, but it helped turn my trip from a hunt into a vacation.
The slideshow “Masks of Venice” was created from my still images using Final Cut Pro, Apple’s powerful video editing program. The music is an instrumental version of La donna è mobile, from Verdi’s Rigoletto, which premiered in Venice, in 1851.