Valinsky's Venice

David Valinsky reflects on the challenges of photographing Venice

David Valinsky is a Cambridge based architect and artist and to see more of his photographs of Venice click here.

There is a need amongst writers when discussing Venice to take us there and to do so on the page as it once was done in reality, slowly and over water. Simply dropping the reader immediately amongst its history or architecture is too disorientating. The liminality, the silence and the loneliness of the lagoon must be conjured up in the reader’s mind as a necessary preliminary to understanding quite how baffling and marvellous a creation Venice was, and remains.

Writers use the journey to meditate on the physicalities of the ephemeral, watery setting as they glide tentatively with the reader towards the distant goal, mirage-like on the horizon. The sound of distant gulls and water slapping on the boat, the smell of salt and clinging seaweed, but above all the colour and light, are described for the reader to fill the time before arrival.

Piazza San Marco and Palazzo dei Camerlenghi

Piazza San Marco Palazzo dei Camerlenghi

This despondent nothingness can serve differing literary devices. John Ruskin, setting his scene in a real and metaphorical twilight has us gaze in melancholy over ‘a waste of wild sea moor of a lurid ashen grey’ towards a distant city robbed of its power and in a state of terminal decline. Jan Morris on the other hand describes the translucent atmosphere and pallid colours of the lagoon as a sobering foil to the bright bustle and colour of the ‘gnarled but gorgeous city’ set unaccountably in its midst. Nevertheless, whatever the purpose of the scene-setting, light and colour are deemed integral to the city in a manner that is unique to Venice.

Through serendipitous coincidence I was able to see Venice twice during 2017, for a week in early April and for a day in mid-November.  The immediacy of modern travel and almost unbroken sunlight during both trips consigned the hazy colourlessness of the lagoon to something read, rather than experienced first-hand. Nevertheless, other atmospheres loom large in the memory.  Venice with the sun high above is a city held between the deep blue of the sky and the curiously opaque turquoise of the water, light bouncing between the two and creating an ever-dancing pattern of reflected light across the walls of the city. Finely-textured chalk-white stone and the city’s tortuously narrow thoroughfares create a world of harsh shadow and light that, for someone with a camera can be daunting.

Basilica of San Marco and San Giorgio Maggiore

Basilica of San Marco San Giorgio Maggiore

Staying in the city for week allows one to experience the glowing light of the early morning and twilight, which seems to emanate from the white stone as if stored like heat. The harsh brightness of the day is replaced with a gentle luminous warmth that sloshes around the canals and campi, dematerialising solid forms, teasing out the subtle colours of precious marbles embedded in byzantine façades and burnishing golden accents on domes and finials.

What and how one chooses to photograph depends of course on one’s personal interests and predilections. I am an architect and my interest in the city lies principally in its buildings — their forms, materials and interrelationships — and its unique, water-bound urbanism. More specifically, I am drawn to particular buildings, many well-known, many less so; I hesitate to call myself a photographer because I am motivated by portraying architecture or urbanism that interests me, rather than by composing photographs. This desire to use photographs to record buildings means that, more often than not, I do my best to use the ever-shifting light available to enhance, or at least avoid compromising, the recording of form, texture and colour. Venice’s glowing half-light is particularly complementary to this approach. Occasionally I cannot help but try to photograph the fleeting effect of the light itself, but this is not my primary motivation.  For others, of course, it is these ephemeral moments or anonymous but characterful details that are of primary interest in photographing the city. For others still, the built form of the city is a backdrop, a stage set, on which life is played out.

Santa Maria della Salute and Doge's Palace

Santa Maria della Salute Doge's Palace

While the static nature of architecture and the predictable movement of light generally make finding a photograph an easier task than the unpredictability of humanity does, Venice poses its own practical challenges. The inability to stand in many of its main thoroughfares means that the opportunities for composing a photograph are often severely limited, though the satisfaction of finding these opportunities either by chance or by the hopeful planning of detours to the ends of quite anonymous alleyways is keenly felt. The total absence of natural topography stands in contrast to this ever-present watery obstacle, though the effect of limiting one’s freedom of movement is comparable. In addition, however, there are no dramatic views here of a city tumbling down into a valley or buildings perched high above public spaces to enliven the composition of a photograph. Nature offers little vitality or irregularity to complement or soften the built form, other than at the small scale of very real, but undeniably picturesque, decay or the occasional hint of a garden beyond high walls. The cityscape can only be grasped from a distance, across the lagoon or from atop a campanile, whence the view is one of isolated towers rising at alarming angles into the sky above a resolutely flat if turbulent sea of terracotta roofs. From such viewpoints the fragility of the city is laid shockingly bare, its anonymous masses huddled desperately close together for mutual support, all furiously treading water on the interminably flat horizon between the unbroken blue vastness of ocean and sky as the lagoon sucks menacingly at their foundations. It feels healthy to occasionally sober oneself to reality from such vantage points before succumbing once more to the allure of city and returning to the intoxicating maze of water, colour and light with a renewed impetus to discover.