Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Unseen Venice

"The most memorable photos are those not taken."

Someone somewhere must have written the above. Perhaps sometime around the middle of the last century, perhaps in a language other than English. Probably more than one person in one place.

I think of it this morning because of an experience I had Monday evening. I was motoring slowly home down the Grand Canal after picking up our newly repaired cover for our little sandolo-sanpierota boat and right there, suddenly, low and large and yellow-tinted just beside the facade of the Palazzo Vendramin Calergi (aka the Casinò di Venezia)--still below it's roofline, in fact--was the full moon. Or nearly the full moon (one night short, actually). 

It was just 5:30 pm, already dark, but not yet completely: there was a silvery sheen like an evanescent after-image of daylight on everything. The repeated arches and 11 circular windows of the palazzo's facade seemed to mimic the shape of the moon right next door to them, and the palazzo's many pairs of tall electric candlesticks bordering each column of its upper two stories were, for the time being, holding their own against the lunar light.

In other words, a perfectly composed photograph presented itself to me. I could imagine the sense of proximity a telephoto lens would emphasize between the casino facade and the moon, the latter just above the line of Grand Canal palazzi sweeping left to right into the distance toward the Rialto. 

I sat on the back-end of our boat, steering the 6 horsepower outboard engine with my right hand, a small point-and-shoot in my backpack near my feet. It wouldn't be ideal, but if I set the f-stop manually and used the zoom... But there was still (as usual) plenty of traffic on the Grand Canal--the Riva de Biasio stop on one side, the Cannaregio Canal on the other--and short of simply stopping and tying up the boat somewhere with the same perspective (if I could find it), there was no way I could capture an image. 

But capture it for whom? For myself? I was already seeing it all, right there at the moment--whenever I allowed myself not to worry about taking an image. 

For this blog? Yes, of course. But what's the infinitesimally small likelihood in this most photographed of cities that someone--or many ones--haven't already captured an image very much like this one? And better? There are, as I type these words, 127,518 images posted on just the Flickr Venice group page alone--with new ones being added every hour.

These days the old idea that we preserve an experience from obliteration/obscurity/anonymity by photographing it has been turned on its head. Things are no longer, as in the old days, obliterated by the passage of time, fading slowly from sight. No, they're obliterated in the sheer overwhelming excess of the moment. 

The traditional stream or river of Time that was long described as carrying off everything we cherished has nothing on today's tumultuous torrent of the Instantaneous and Now, likely to overwhelm our dear images right before our eyes.

And for all the memory cards we're filling up these days with images and video--and nowhere more than Venice--how many of us will have any of them in two years? In five years?

Indeed, the fear among historians is that in spite of the fact that never in human history have so many people so easily recorded so much, the transient nature of the media and the rapidity of technological change will result in very little of these images surviving--or being viewable (

Whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, technology has burdened all of us with the task of acting as archivists of our own history in a far more complex manner than simply tossing some photos into a box, putting it in a closet, and forgetting about it. 

At least that's one way of looking at it. 

Another has more to do with some points that Susan Sontag made in On Photography. From my numerous but limited interactions with Sontag herself it was hard not to notice a likeness between her and Dostoevsky's character of Ivan Karamazov, who admits to both a love of humanity in the abstract and a repulsion from actual human beings: of whom he can't help but be contemptuous, and to whom he can't help but be rude. At her most provocative, Sontag accuses us shutterbugs of ethical failings. At other times (our "better" moments, I guess) we are, as she writes below, merely cowardly, infantile, and weak-minded:
The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures. 
Of course, a camera is not the only way one can defend oneself from experiences, novelties, other people. Knowledge, as Sontag herself must surely have known, or even just the pretense of it, works awfully well, too--and has been doing so since long before photography came along.

Anyone who travels much, or spends much time in places visited by tourists, is likely to be familiar with the Know-It-All, who at the first sight of a palazzo, for example, will launch into a flood of information (accurate or otherwise) that one can't help but feel is a defense against some kind of actual experience itself. As if he or she must strike out at the sight or experience first, before the sight or experience has a chance to strike him or her. As if, in other words, tourism is a matter of "Kill or be killed."

All of which is a long explanation of why there is no image at the top of this post--though, inevitably, there will be plenty more to come in future posts. I see no inherent virtue in not taking photos, and no inherent vice in doing so. In fact I remember quite clearly and with much fondness one afternoon just after buying my first SLR film camera that I spent alone in Big Sur taking photos, feeling that the camera itself was what spurred me to a new appreciation and attention to a landscape I'd seen before.

Perhaps there's something to be said for someone who shoots a lot of photographs putting the camera or smart phone away for a few hours in Venice, just to see what it feels like to be in such a place without one's old friend and usual way of seeing. Perhaps it's worthwhile for those who never (or almost  never) shoot photos to go out on the hunt for images for a few hours here. Again, just for the sake of seeing what difference it makes in one's own experience of the place.

As both Kant and Freud wrote, the experiences that strike us most profoundly, that leave (as we say) the most lasting impressions upon us, are those we aren't prepared for, that we don't expect, against which we don't (or simply can't) employ our usual filters or modes of understanding. The kinds of surprises that might appear to any one of us around any one of Venice's infinite corners or bends or blind alleys--if we can allow ourselves not to be prepared for them, in whatever way that means for each of us.

UPDATE: 28 November 2015: This article about the Rijksmueum encouraging its visitors to sketch instead of take photos offers a related perspective on the above theme:


  1. I could definitely see this article in the New York Times travel section, or as a human interest piece. Excellent topic and brilliantly written. Thank you, S. Noloso.

  2. I have the small suitcase of photos that belonged to my late parents. I remember most of the folk on them but my kids don't. I guess the pictures will be binned eventually. Makes you wonder what you take them for.

    1. If they still contain memories for you, Andrew, that seems pretty good. You reminded me of a line from Lampdusa's novel The Leopard: something about the protagonist realizing he could have an effect only upon those generations he could literally touch with his hands, beyond that there was nothing he could do... But sometimes I think the significance of a photo resides in the act of taking it, rather than in the documentary result--especially these days.

  3. Wow, I'm going to be thinking about this post for a while. Thanks for so much food for thought.

    Taking photos while traveling is such a joy to me but I've sometimes wondered if it has prevented me from being in the "now moment" that Zen points us to.

    And I'm now thinking that I need to re-read "The Brothers Karamazov". I read it for a "Psychology of Religion" course at
    UNC-CH 30 years ago. I loved the book and the class, but now I find that my memory is hazy, I know I loved Ivan but why?

    Cheers from North Carolina, Annie

    1. I suspect there's more than one way to "be in the moment", Annie, and that it may change in different contexts for even the same person. Now, how to find the right way at the right time...? Who knows?

      I haven't read Bros Karamazov for years, too, and it would be nice to go back and read the Pevear & Volokhonsy translation. It's really interesting to return to a book like that after so many years and see, for example, if Ivan still strikes you the way he first did.

    2. So a few days after reading your post, I started reading "Hold Still," the memoir of American photographer, Sally Mann. It's a great read - she's had an amazing Southern Gothic- type life, kinda jaw dropping at times! And the book includes her photos which are often beautiful but very weird.

      Anyway, at one point she says that photographs replace/destroy our memories. I've been thinking about it a lot - I don't think it's always true but I do have some dead relatives that when I think of them, I remember a photograph I have instead of a "real" memory. More food for thought!

    3. I'm familiar with the work of Sally Mann, Annie, and so it's especially interesting to hear that you're enjoying her memoir; I'll have to look it into it some more and see if I can get my hands on a copy. And considering that her most famous images are of those closest to her, to her family, her idea about photographs replacing/destroying our memories is particularly intriguing, even provocative. Definitely something to think about. Thanks for letting me know about it and the memoir!

  4. For the first (and perhaps for the last time), I will dare to write down a comment on a post from this blog. I'm sorry for my poor level of English (I am from Barcelona and my mother language is Catalan...) but I'd like to thank you for all the insightful moments that reading your posts has given to me. I am a Venice Lagoon lover (me and my wife use to visit the lagoon once a year), but most of all, I love the contemplation of life. And that is what most of your posts are all about. Being able of discovering beauty and meaning of life not just in the façades of Venice but in the small things of a live city is something that only a good writer can do. Posts like the one I am commenting on are not just a Photo+Caption but a piece of good literature in the best sense of the word. Thanks a lot from the other side of the Mediterranean.


    1. Thank you very much for your comment, Lluís, I really appreciate it. There are some posts that I believe will be interesting to people who are interested in Venice and then there are others that I am quite unsure about, but I go ahead with anyway. Because, contrary to what many people involved in publishing and writing assert, I think there's no sure way to know what might matter to different readers. Comments such as yours encourage me to keep trying and trust the not knowing--instead of trying to predict what might "go over." (And your English is very good, by the way).

  5. This post is really complex with a lot of issues to be addressed, Dear Signor Nonloso.

    You are always completely free to take or not to take a picture! And you chose/decided not to do it some days ago in front of Palazzo Vendramin. That is the most important point.

    The cameras with memory card have deeply changed our way of taking picture. During the “argentic time”, we paid more attention to the (number of) photos we took, but we were sometimes very disappointed by the result we discovered several days/weeks later, in particular when the initial objective of the picture was documentary or keeping a moment perceived as unique for us. Taking picture may now be more a kind of reflex and not a thoughtful act. But we can get rid of what we don’t’ want to keep in the memory card, and it is a chance. The question is: why, most of the times, are we in fact unable to get rid of many nearly identical pictures we took?

    However, it is different from my point of view to take ten pictures of San Marco or to take ten selfies with San Marco in the background. It is also different to take ten pictures of San Marco for oneself or to decide to put them on Flickr Venice group with many others identical pictures. I don’t know if these are ethical questions, but there are completely different attitudes.

    One problem is also the disappearance of black and white pictures, which makes our pictures so wonderful but so redundant.

    It is also different to take ten pictures of San Marco because you have only twenty minutes to spend on the Piazzetta and only four hours in Venice or to take ten new pictures of a place you know well but are happy to see/discover again with a different light, in a different season, with different friends, etc and with yourself at different ages, as you would take regularly pictures of your family/friends.

    We can buy know everywhere old pictures, sometimes not so old. We know we take photos for ourselves most of the times, without hoping to leave a trail in the future (even in our family in two generations), even if we post them on the net. Electronic pictures will probably survive less than the argentic ones, as you say. However, as said a famous photographer (I don’t remember who) “a picture is a thousandth of a second against eternity”. We go on believing that. And if we don’t take the picture, we will (try to) remember.

    As you say, Venice may be more than other cities is a permanent offer of surprises. And we like surprises. But surprise is something very subjective. May be because I don’t live in Venice, but seeing for the nth time certain places in Venice is still a surprise for me, which ends often by a nth photo. It is the feeling I have rarely in other cities, very rarely in Paris where I am living. May be that is the consequence of the liquid environment and the immanence of history and arts on people, way/rhytm of life, etc. Everyday life, shadows, perspectives, etc are so changing in Venice that it is difficult not to take pictures by/for pleasure. I suppose you do so and it is why we all like so much your posts, Dear Signor Nonloso. Thank you by anticipation for your next posts.
    (from Auvraisien)

    1. First of all, Auvraisien, I hope that you and those close to you have escaped the recent attacks in Paris unharmed--though I know that the harm of such things can extend far beyond those immediately affected, and is of course the intention of those who do such things. Perhaps one reason we take pictures, even if we end up never making anything of the digital file or even losing it (as when I was a boy my family used to forget to develop rolls of film for many months or even a year) is because at least conceptually we link the act of taking an image with some kind of permanence. We have, as you quoted, preserved a moment against the ravages of time, against all the unpredictability and, yes, even terror, that all of must sometime be subjected to. As for the "ethics" of taking pictures, recent events in Paris and elsewhere in the world make me wish that the worst thing we humans ever did was photograph each other. As silly or rude or obnoxious or thoughtless as any of us might sometimes be with a camera, if that was the worst we ever did we'd be living in a kind of paradise.

  6. I picture Venice to grab it and take it home, to capture my emotion that suddenly springs in that deserted alley, that quiet cannal or that peacefull Campiello. And when I get home and try to show others my emotion through the pictures, all they see is a deserted and decadent town. That is why I always travel with my notebook and pen, where I can really register my feelings and emotions.

    Great post¡

    1. Thanks very much, Jon: we're lucky when another person also sees something or finds something in a scene we've tried to capture either with a camera or notebook and pen (or both). It's always a pleasant surprise to me when it happens, and I'm happy to find it's something you can relate to.