The tyranny of photography

This time last year, I was sitting on my bed crying. My trip to Antarctica was a month away and I was overwhelmed. This was partly due to the preparation needed, which involved way more shopping than I was comfortable with (which is none). I also had to concern myself with my camera equipment—extra memory cards and batteries and an additional (unfamiliar) camera body and protecting all of it during Zodiac rides.

The main source of my tears, though, was the pressure to take photographs that lived up to the trip and to my expectations of myself and to my reputation among family and friends for taking good photographs. I was so stressed that I actually considered leaving the DSLRs at home and using only my smartphone for taking pictures.

It all started so innocently when I went on my first safari. I bought an SLR and a zoom lens and thanks to a friend, learned what I needed to know to use the camera in those circumstances. I practiced every weekend during the summer before the safari. When I came back, I was so used to having the camera in my hand that I continued going out with it every weekend.

Then people started complimenting my photos and suggesting I sell them. I tried various ways of doing that for a couple of years—contacting stock agencies (at just the time photos became easily available online!), making products with my photos on them, and providing prints on consignment to a local frame shop. The reality was that there were several mismatches between what I thought I could do and what was needed to do that. I had no interest in becoming a professional photographer and shooting on demand.

During this time, going on trips—vacation and business—involved taking not only the camera and lens, but a tripod so I could get ‘sell-worthy’ photos. Wherever I was, I would go out early and late to take photographs for my portfolio. When I traveled, I wasn’t finding a nice restaurant in which to eat dinner, I was picking up takeout on my way back from a sunset shoot, which, depending on time of year, didn’t end until after 9:00. Don’t get me wrong—I enjoyed it.

However, as I imagine is true with lots of long-term hobbies/activities, my interest waxed and waned. Instead of going out taking pictures where I lived, I’d haul out my camera mostly for trips. I’d use my tripod if I was out shooting at sunrise and sunset, but didn’t take it along for trips anymore. For a couple of trips, I didn’t even bother with the camera. For others, I’d contemplate leaving the camera behind but invariably have that ‘oh, what if I wish I had it’ thought and most times, I was glad I brought it along. Because I wasn’t shooting as frequently or as intensely, my technical skills got rusty and that would lead to frustration and ‘sheesh, what a load of crap I shot today’.

Then there’s the cataloguing of the photos. I happen to like process and organization, so I enjoyed establishing standards for filenames and figuring out a keyword hierarchy, but sometimes, I feel I will never get caught up on reviewing, assigning keywords, and editing.

So, in the last several months, photography and I have been having the relationship talk, as in ‘where is this relationship going?’

And yet…

For years, I said that photography was as close as I got to meditation. It was a flow activity, an activity in which I was totally absorbed and unconscious of time. I was ‘still’ in those moments, taking the time to look about me before I started taking pictures, experimenting with different settings, framing the image just so. I loved being out in the early morning, often near the water, catching the reflections and colors and light.

Photography reminded me to work with what I had. There were times I set out to photograph something and circumstances prevented it, like the overcast sky and snow the day I was down on the harbor to photograph the New Year’s Day sunrise. I know there was a sunrise, but it sure wasn’t visible! I was disappointed, but I captured one of my all-time favorite images that day.

I loved going on photography expeditions with my friend Phil. We’d start out in time to reach our destination at sunrise, which in the summer was pretty darn early. We’d shoot for a couple of hours, then have a cholesterol-laden breakfast. One time, we got so into what we were seeing and exploring, we stayed out until after dark. Later, we’d have fun sharing our ‘bests’.

I appreciated that my camera and lenses allowed me to make the world more interesting or beautiful. I could zoom in to show detail and pattern that weren’t obvious. People would ask where a particular image was from and be astounded that it was something they saw every day.

One of the best things to happen was to have someone walk by me as I was taking a photo and say, ‘wow, I wouldn’t have noticed that’ or ‘you made me stop and appreciate this’. That always made me feel good, as if I’d grabbed the person by the hand and said, ‘look at this—it’s beautiful’.

Most of all, using a camera taught me to see a different way. Whether I have a camera in hand or not, I notice things that I would not have noticed pre-photography, especially light. I’m sure I look quite half-witted sometimes when I stop and stare at a wall that is striped with the shadows of a window grate or the way a leaf is lit by the sun.

My sister and I had a text exchange recently that went like this:

Her: I will go through my photos and mark the ones I think are really good even though I’m not doing anything with them.
Me: As I’ve said before, does one have to do anything with them? Perhaps it’s what they do for you.

I think I might have unintentionally said something wise and pertinent to the relationship talk.

Image © Melissa Corcoran.

Padua

With the return of more moderate temperatures, I’ve started to revive after a summer I considered horribly hot. Couple that with autumn being one of my favorite times to travel, and I started looking about me for a destination for an overnight trip and came up with Padua (Padova). What an interesting choice that turned out to be!

After arrival, dropping off my bag at the hotel, and a quick lunch, I started a geocaching Wherigo* called Padova Zoo. A Wherigo cache can be a good way to tour a city and this one proved no exception. My first stop was at an equestrian statue outside the Basilica of St. Anthony. The Basilica is not the city’s cathedral but it is especially revered as the location of the tomb of St. Anthony, the city’s patron saint. The interior is magnificent in scale and beautifully crafted, but not as overpoweringly grandiose as some churches I’ve visited. I was disappointed that no photos were allowed or even good-quality postcards of the interior available to buy.

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After walking my way through the Wherigo, there was time for a restorative cup of tea before an evening visit to the Scrovegni Chapel, which houses an important fresco cycle by Giotto. On arriving, the first stop was a room in which we sat while the ‘microclimate’ was stabilized, a conservation measure put in place in 2000. While we waited, we watched an excellent video that explained the history and significance of the frescoes and gave us a close-up look at the details of the panels. Then it was time to enter.

To be honest, it’s easy to get jaded about frescoes here in Italy—there are so many and so many are beautiful and/or significant. This, though, was different. Perhaps it was because it was a chapel and the smaller scale made the effect more powerful, perhaps it was that there were only four other people there, perhaps it was the video giving me context and what to look for, but this was one of the most astounding things I’ve ever seen. I could have stayed much longer, neck craned and mouth agape.

The next day, I took a tour of Palazzo Bo, part of the University of Padua. What a great tour! I love when a tour guide obviously loves the place they are talking about, as our guide did. We started in the Old Court, surrounded by heraldic crests and watching graduates in their laurel wreaths get their pictures taken. Our guide explained something I’d been curious about, having seen graduates at all times of year in Florence. In Italy, students can graduate at several times during the calendar year. Someone in the group asked about the song they had heard sung to graduates on the street the previous night, which starts ‘Dottore, dottore.’ Our guide said somewhat evasively that she couldn’t translate it, but when I looked it up online later, I realized that she didn’t want to say the words as they are rather crude!

The history of the university is fascinating. It came into being when a group of teachers and students moved from Bologna University seeking greater academic freedom. The university was organized by the students, who elected the rectors and chose and paid the teachers. In the Old Court, we saw the heraldic crests of different rectors, so many that eventually the mounting of crests was forbidden, partly due to their weight and the consequent stress on the walls.

The Great Hall is where classes were held originally, but now its use is restricted to special occasions. It was so wonderful to look at that I would gladly attend a seminar in order to examine it more closely. Outside the Great Hall is the Sala dei Quaranta, so-called for the forty portraits on the wall of illustrious foreigners who studied at the university. There I met an old friend from my theatre classes, Oliver Goldsmith. There was also in this room a crudely-built structure of steps leading to a lectern. Our guide explained that it originally stood in the Great Hall. It was constructed for Galileo Galilei, who spent 18 years at the university. His lectures were the most popular at the university and students made the lectern so he could be seen above the crowds of attendees.

We visited the anatomy theatre, which was constructed in 1594. Due to the intellectual freedom that was the result of being under the protection of the Venetian Republic, five dissections a year were allowed, using the bodies of executed criminals. The rake of the theatre is quite steep, with six rings looking down onto the table. Over their time at the university, as students progressed through their course of study, they moved closer and closer to the table. Given that the lighting was by candle, I imagine it wasn’t until they ‘graduated’ to the lower tiers that they could see much of anything.

The tour ended at the Heroes Entrance, where there is a stele marking the award of the Gold Medal for Military Valor to the university for its contribution to the Resistance in WWII. The wall of the nearby staircase is frescoed with a depiction of a young student’s progress through learning. Although we couldn’t see the final section (the staircase is roped off because it leads to the rector’s office), the visual narrative ends with the student as an old man, saying ‘anchora imparo’—’still learning’. I love that!

One of the Mantegna frescoes. You can see fragments attached to the lighter background.

After lunch at a quiet restaurant on a quiet street with a charming staff and spectacular food, I picked up my bag at the hotel and headed for the train station, making a stop at Chiesa degli Eremitani. A chapel in this church was almost destroyed by the Allies in WWII because it was next to the German headquarters. The chapel’s frescoes, by Andrea Mantegna, were left, according to an information board, in over 80,000 pieces. The fragments were preserved in Rome and in the early 1990s, cleaned and photographed. Some years later, software was developed to try to virtually reconstruct the frescoes. Get this—they are trying to reconstruct the frescoes using black and white photographs taken between 1900 and 1920. It amazes me the expertise and creativity that goes into art conservation.

All in all, I recommend a visit to Padua if you’re ever in the neighborhood!

* Briefly, a Wherigo uses a cartridge to guide the player from point to point, using GPS technology. You must arrive at a point before the next point is ‘opened’ to you.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.

Shutters

During our work session yesterday, my sister suggested I create a ‘gratitude’ post, perhaps with photos. A few minutes later, I came across the word ‘shutters’ in my list of possible galleries. In the heat of a Tuscan heat wave, I am grateful for the shutters on my apartment windows—they block the sun during the day and help keep the apartment a little cooler.

I’m grateful for these shutters because they are interesting and photogenic!

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Images © Melissa Corcoran.

Postcards from Malta

Places like Malta make me want to spend my time going around looking at beautiful sights and taking photos.

Images © Melissa Corcoran.