Posted on September 19, 2017
I’ve been adding more stuff to my Viewbug home page these days. I like the eyeballs and the feedback I get so posting there’s become part of my blogging/travel writing approach. The average Viewbug visitor is an enthusiast. And as a photographer, I’m intrigued by which of my images evokes engagement and why. As a writer I’ve figured out that when I talk directly to another photographer, my writing hits the level of style that I like.
The point being, to feed Viewbug I’ve been returning to some of my older work. Two years is a long time for me and I’ve done a lot of exploration since both in style and my post-production work. That means I can’t just export all these old Italy shots en mass to Viewbug, I have to touch them again in Lightroom or Photoshop.
Because that’s part of the deal I have with myself. If I can’t see my initial composition idea in the frame, if it isn’t at least in the ballpark, I can’t post it.
So for these older images, I’m standing back and seeing the images as experiences that engaged me. I mean, that’s why we travel right, to be engaged on an artistic and a personal level. And coming back to this little moment, these bride and groom images from Florence, was fun. So to set the stage:
It’s Florence in mid-July; it’s as hot as Florence gets. I was there for most of a week, staying at an AirBnB doing various (non-photo enthusiast) tours, taking reams of images, walking the streets — showering as often as possible to keep it together.
Because it’s Italy, stuff happens, especially when I’m on walkabout. And on this particular afternoon I was roaming the piazza just outside the Uffizi Gallery. I had a 5D Mark III at that point and the old 24-105mm was my walkaround lens. That allowed me to keep some distance and not intrude on a bride and groom who had come all this way to capture their dream.
And to put it as Petrarch might have, “… and the wandering enthusiast came upon a wedding party who had set up in the piazza on that sun-drenched afternoon. … The lusty wench in her wedding dress, the groom, bemused but uncertain …” K, maybe not Petrarch.
Anyway there was a bride and groom doing wedding shots in the afternoon light. I knew that doing shots of brides being photographed is an obvious trope. But in street photography you want to find people that are invested, in the moment. And who cares if other photogs have done stuff that’s similar, I don’t have to sell the shot. I’m doing a photo walkabout and Italy has presented me with a bride working her magic with a photographer.
The thing I like about these kinds of street scene opportunities is that the human relationships are so well expressed in visual terms. The photographer, working with the bride. She strutting her stuff while the the groom, a fifth wheel for now, watches stiffly.
At the time, I framed this shot as the previous. But with hindsight, it was obvious that the real shot was this closeup. So no groom; I cropped tight enough so the viewer could get the energy between model and photographer.
That played out for a bit and then they seemed to wrap things for the day. I’m sure their costumes were painfully hot by then.
But there was one final moment. And this was the shot I liked best.
The whole thing moved along fast, it’s street photography. You need to see moments and respond. So my focus was to shoot from where there was good light, to quickly frame that moment and not worry about a chair in the background.
This final frame was also a wrap for my walkabout . I wandered back to my AirBnB apartment, took another shower and kicked back till the evening light kicked in.
I doubt that I’ll do anything with this sequence beyond the blog and Viewbug post. So I didn’t eliminate the chair or poster behind the bride in Photoshop. I did touch this one in Lightroom yesterday — darkening the photographer’s back, adding some (negative) Clarity and (positive) Saturation to the bride’s face to give her a dewy glow.
Posted on September 1, 2015
Ask a friend heading off to Rome what they’re going to see and the Sistine Chapel will be on the short list. When they come home, they’ll tell you that the Sistine Chapel was so magnificent. And that they got a sore neck just looking up so very long. True. But no one tells you how much bother can be involved with the Sistine experience — or how to make it hassle free.
Because if you decide to do the Sistine the old style way, you’ll be in the ticket line for an hour or more. And once you’re in that famous little Chapel, you’ll find there’s way too many people pushing against you to be completely charming.
Many smart travelers avoid the line by doing a Sistine Chapel tour. Sign up for it online, show up at the meeting spot, the ticket line is avoided. Plus there are some excellent Vatican tour guides out there.
But… But regardless of whether you take that tour or go solo, once you get in, it’s still gonna be crowded in the little chapel.
So on this trip, I tried a different tactic, the early (8 am) tour. Several tour companies provide this early entrance tour. It costs $10 or $15 more but you eliminate the crowds for that entire first hour — and see stuff you might not find otherwise. You’re not alone, several tour groups offer the early morning variation. But you avoid the real crowds.
I signed up for one the WalksOfItaly.com tours, “Pristine Sistine.” And it was great. Our guide has been doing that tour for years. He gave just the right amount of detail going from one sight to the next. Artistic, historical, biographical info that an academic would know — shared in a way that was fun and observant.
But my favorite part was him showing us to the Raphael Rooms before anyone else arrived. Sweet.
The Raphael Rooms began life in the early 1500s as a private waiting area, the place the Pope put his important visitors before the formal meeting:
The four Raphael Rooms (Stanze di Raffaello) form a suite of reception rooms in the place, the public part of the papal apartments in the Palace of the Vatican. They are famous for their frescoes, painted by Raphael and his workshop. Together with Michelangelo’s ceiling frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, they are the grand fresco sequences that mark the High Renaissance in Rome. [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
But let’s step back and put Raphael into his time. Rafael Sanzio, 8 years younger than Michelangelo, had taken a far different route than from the older painter. (Michelangelo had phenomenal luck in getting in with the Medici so young.) Raphael’s father had been a court painter, so painting was his cultural DNA. He apprenticed to Pietro Perugino, one of the best painters of the time. The young teen apprentice would have started off as studio boy who handled basic art prep and every other chore he was given.
According to Vasari, the great biographer of that age, Perugino instantly saw Raphael’s talent and soon the young man was intimately involved with the master’s painting projects:
… while Raphael studied Pietro’s style, he imitated it so exactly and in all its details that his portraits could not be distinguished from his master’s originals. [Vasari, Giorgio, The Lives of the Artists].
Raphael was a fast learner and by the time he had finished his stint as apprentice he was on the road to Florence, the town in Italy where the art form was being reinvented. Florence was like the way San Francisco was to the Counter Culture; like how New York still is to many dancers and artists. Florence was the Renaissance.
Raphael wanders into this scene at its height. Leonardo hadn’t gone up to France yet and he enjoyed the young kid with the flowing talent. Michelangelo is already down in Rome hard at work on the Sistine. Florence in 1500 wasn’t much larger than Santa Fe is. But the entire city state was aware that something new was in the air. The Renaissance explosion was something shared by artists, writers, thinkers, architects, and the Medici themselves.
Raphael spent the next 4 years on and off in Florence, connecting with some of the best artists and thinkers of the age, mastering the fine points of Renaissance painting:
[When] This exceptional painter … saw the works of Leonardo and Michelangelo, they made him apply himself with great intensity to his studies, and, as a result, make extraordinary improvements in his art and style. [Vasari]
Then, like Michelangelo, Raphael realized that Rome was the source of the best commissions — and that he wouldn’t have trouble getting commissions. Raphael’s friend Bramante (also from Urbino) had been working for Pope Julius II and convinced the pope to give Raphael a commission. So at 25, Raphael made the journey. That commission was the first of the Raphael Rooms.
Note: By 1500, The Catholic Church was supporting the arts at a level we can’t imagine — because in an age when congregations can’t read, art becomes the tool for communication. A painting could suggest the devotion of Mary, the journey up to Calvary or the sacrifice of the saints. That’s why the church fathers were hiring. And that’s why we have all these amazing works of art. Then as now, money drives the arts.
Raphael arrived in Rome in 1508 and was hired almost immediately to paint the first of what would become the Raphael Rooms. But in that universe, artists weren’t the free agents they are now. Painters relied almost exclusively on paid commissions and were expected to please the patron. So when Pope Julius II hired the 25 year old, he made it clear what he expected.
The first room Raphael worked on, called Stanza della Segnatura, tells us what the Pope was after. It has a fresco on each of the four walls and the ceiling. But two particular wall-sized frescos tell the story — once you deconstruct the visuals. The “School of Athens” and “Disputation of the Holy Sacrament” are both important paintings. And both tell us why art was such a major part of the Church’s budget.
The first of these paintings shows the great philosopher/scientists of ancient Athens. This wise and harmonious group of men have Plato and his student, Aristotle, at the center. The painting is a good example of how educated Italians viewed their intellectual predecessors. And clearly, these scientists and philosophers were held in great regard. [Click on the image to give a closer look.]
But why did the pope choose to have this painting in his main reception area? As we’ll see, the pope was merely using this painting as an example of the old (i.e. pre-Catholic) approach to knowledge. So for this picture, Pope Julius just needed Raphael to invoke the idea of a gathering of Greek wise men.
Raphael wanted this fresco to be something far more. He was going to show off his chops to the money guys. So Raphael handled the pope’s requirements in a way that’s uniquely his own.
Remember, Raphael has been hanging with the top folks in Florence for the last 4 years. And to the Florence thinkers, the ancients are the cornerstone of the Renaissance. All the old philosophers were being rediscovered in Florence — and giving the Renaissance thinkers a confirmation that they were on the right track. So a painting like this was sending the thought leaders of Florence a message:
The picture has long been seen as “Raphael’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical spirit of the Renaissance.” [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
This painting, one of Raphael’s most thoughtful, evokes the inner harmony of those ancient thinkers. This formal composition, set in some idealized temple of thought, is what the Renaissance means to Raphael.
The two central figures gesture along different dimensions: Plato vertically, upward … into the beautiful vault above; Aristotle on the horizontal plane … initiating a powerful flow of space toward viewers. It is popularly thought that their gestures indicate central aspects of their philosophies, for Plato, his Theory of Forms, and for Aristotle, his empiricist views. [Wikipedia, School of Athens]
Renaissance though includes both those philosophical impulses. And notice that for each major figure, the subject’s psyche is expressed through their physicality — a key Renaissance art principle.
Raphael also shows his personal feelings by using friends and associates as models for many of the famous Greeks. Raphael seems to have had Leonardo in mind when he painted Plato. The philosopher Heraclitus, leaning on the stone block, is a likeness of Michelangelo. And the young guy looking into the camera on the far right, that’s Raphael.
Disputation of the Holy Sacrament
On the opposite wall, the painter gives us the real vision of truth that his boss, Pope Julius II, was trying to promote:
Here we have an idealized landscape with two main structural elements, a golden Heavenly Realm and below a gathering of Church elders. If you look at this picture with the eyes of a Renaissance Catholic, you can start to decode it’s deep meaning. Each of the subjects in this scene was based on a character in the Roman Catholic universe:
In the painting, Raphael has created a scene spanning both heaven and earth. Above, Christ is surrounded by the Blessed Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and various biblical figures such as Adam, Jacob and Moses. God the Father sits above Jesus, depicted reigning over the golden light of heaven, and below Christ’s feet is the Holy Spirit . [Wikipedia, Raphael Rooms]
Below this heavenly realm, we see the great thinkers of the Church from the past and present — including the pope that hired Raphael. Putting one’s patron into a Jesus or Mary painting was fairly common. But here Raphael is telling us more, that yes, our own living, breathing Pope Julius is part of the sacred grace and wisdom that flows down from on high.
Each painting stands on its own. But remember, in this room, two frescos with the same basic theme are facing each other. And that implied comparison signifies that the two visions of wisdom and greatness are a kind of before and after. This is how the wise Greeks did it. And they were the greatest thinkers of the ancient world. But, with “Disputation,” the pope is telling us that the Christian model of Truth goes even beyond the reality of Plato and Aristotle. Because our church’s understanding of truth stretches from priest to church elders and the pope all the way up to the Holy Trinity. That’s the not-so-secret message of this room.
But of course, Raphael isn’t a painter of platitudes. The kid took a basic commission and turned it into one of the masterpieces of the High Renaissance. And he was able to give both paintings a level of thoughtful grace that transcends technique and message:
The compositions, though very carefully conceived in drawings, achieve “sprezzatura”, a term invented by his [Raphael’s] friend Castiglione, who defined it as “a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless …” [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Each painting evokes a specific aspect of human thought, each character manifests their humanity in their physicality and character. And together the paintings give us an intriguing insight into the Italian thought of the time.
Other Paintings – Deliverance of St. Peter
“Disputation of the Sacrament” and the “School of Athens” give Pope Julius’ basic paradigm. But the other paintings in these private chambers expand on that basic paradigm.
The Deliverance of St. Peter, painted around a window bay in the Stanza di Eliodoro, shows the story of Saint Peter being liberated by an angel for Herod‘s prison. The painting is in three parts — kinda like a comic that’s been drawn to scale. In the left panel, the guards (in Renaissance armor) are awakened to see a strange light emanating from Peter’s cell. Top center shows us the angel freeing Peter from chains. And the right panel shows them walking past the slumbering guards.
The whole thing is a wonderfully dramatic retelling of an incident in Acts 12. The painting reminds the viewer that the Church has harnessed a higher power works in ways beyond our human understanding. Peter was the foundation on which the Church was built and this image brings the power of that relationship home.
The painting is also infused with Rafael’s special magic. The angel is managing the prison guards like a Jedi knight. The escape is handled with the simplicity of parable and the transcendent elegance that Raphael embodies.
Expulsion of Heliodorus
The other major work in this room is called, “The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple”:
It illustrates the biblical episode from 2 Maccabees (3:21-28). Heliodorus is ordered by Seleucus IV Philopator, the king of Syria, to seize the treasure preserved in the Temple in Jerusalem…. But the money had been reserved for widows and orphans and God sent down a horseman to drive him [Heliodorus] from the temple. [Wikipedia]
Notice that among the poor widows and orphans is a bearded man on a raised litter — who looks just like Pope Julius II. But the more important part of the message from our sponsors is don’t steal from the church or else.
There’s also an interesting stylistic issue associated with this fresco. Notice the intense physical dynamism in this painting, especially on the right side. Angels flying through the air, a horse rears up, Heliodorus is punished. This is not the overly balanced composition we’ve seen in Raphael’s earlier work. At this point in his life, Raphael’s starting to stretch his craft in new directions.
The fresco was painted between 1511 and 1512. And we know that Raphael studied Michelangelo’s work in the Sistine Chapel even before it was completed in 1512. Raphael’s friend, Bramante, gave him access to the Sistine Chapel without Michelangelo’s approval. And, according to Vasari, Michelangelo was fiercely angry about that.
The Sistine Chapel paintings were a watershed moment in the Renaissance, a formal effort by Michelangelo to inject physical dynamism and immediacy into what was then a fairly static medium. The Expulsion of Heliodorus shows Raphael’s experimentation. But Raphael’s women don’t have the broad-shouldered muscularity you see in the Sistine Chapel women. And his color palette has it’s usual subtlety. As always, Raphael integrated new ideas in a way that was uniquely his own.
After The Expulsion of Heliodorus, Raphael continued his explorations far beyond the Raphael Rooms — especially in terms of his ability to explore human experience through the medium. Earlier, when he studied Leonardo’s work in Florence, Raphael didn’t have the life experience. He couldn’t touch the level of portraiture we see in Mona Lisa. But Raphael’s later work is moving in that direction.
By 1520, Raphael was dead; dead at 37. Renaissance painters mostly followed the lead of Michelangelo towards Mannerism. The balance and harmony of Raphael wasn’t punchy and it was just too hard for most painters to pull off. Eventually Mannerism got more over-the-top and ornate and… Baroque.
But Raphael continued to be studied by leading painters well into the 19th Century. The great Joshua Reynolds summed up the importance of Raphael from the mid-1700s perspective:
The excellency of this extraordinary man lay in the propriety, beauty, and majesty of his characters, his judicious contrivance of his composition, correctness of drawing, purity of taste, and the skilful accommodation of other men’s conceptions to his own purpose. Nobody excelled him in that judgment, with which he united to his own observations on nature, the energy of Michael Angelo, and the beauty and simplicity of the antique. [Wikipedia, Raphael]
Posted on July 18, 2015
I love coming across street artists when I travel. They are often working close to one of the big art museums. This guy, doing his version of the famous Vermeer, was just outside the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Right next to him was an artist doing da Vinci.
The guy doing the Mona Lisa seems to be a bit out of his league here. But hey, his canvas is a sidewalk. And at least he’s imitating one of Florence’s famous progeny. Vermeer was from Delft and never set foot in Italy.
Walking in the Master’s Footsteps
As a photographer, I like these kinds of art for two reasons. First, this on-the-ground art work reminds me of the training an artist gets from imitating one of the great masters. During the time of Michelangelo and da Vinci, that’s how artists learned their craft–and it was considered a craft back then, a job similar to a woodworker or silversmith.
The young boy went to live with a master painter or sculptor and his family. And he started by doing the grunt work, housework, prepping the canvas. Then, he would do sketches and have lessons from the master during down time.
After a few years, the apprentice would do the less important parts of a master’s painting, the folds of a dress, the sky; maybe paint a lesser character in the painting. The master would do the work that required subtlety — the face of Christ or Mary. And you can sometimes see a painting by Titian or Bellini and spot sections that are not at the level of the master, sometimes not even getting their style.
So when I see a painter copying one of the master works in an art class or on the street, it reminds me of the value of following in the footsteps, of making the same brushstrokes an old master must have chosen to create a work of art. That’s part of the learning process.
Capturing the Levels of Reality
Looking at sidewalk art also gives me of the sense of several layers of reality coexisting: the art work has it’s own internal space, it’s on a sidewalk that is in use, and the artist is there — as ferryman between these two different realms. So capturing the sense of these various realities is an interesting challenge.
Capturing the layers of artistic reality can be done in a photo is lots of different ways.
Here, the two realities, a happy family and a dark vision of the human persona, coexist in an uneasy way (made more so by my intensifying the sculpture in Lightroom).
Here we get the layers of reality by looking over the painter’s shoulder.
I was able to shoot this late at night. And that intensifies the focus in the photograph on the three layers: painter, subject, art work. If I had shot the same location at mid-day, the tourists and visual noise would have been too in-your-face, the magic would have been lost.
Here’s a variation on the theme:
Same painter but with an observer looking over his shoulder; the street flow a dark blur in the background.
And finally, exhausted tourists sitting in front of the Florence sculpture garden at Piazza della Signoria.
Posted on July 14, 2015
While I was in Florence I did a couple of tours with Walks of Italy: their day long tour of the city and its museums and the day trip out to Siena, San Gimignano and a gaggle of Tuscan wineries. That trip had several photo locations that are worth mentioning.
The trip, like everything Walks of Italy does, was nicely organized. We all met at the Piazza della Repubblica and got to know each other. This was a 2 van group, so there were about 15 of us. All of the participants were interesting and no one who was a total wack job.
Our first stop was in Florence, the Piazzale Michelangelo. This site is on the far side of the Arno River at the top of the hill. It has a great view of the city and river. Not quite as high a view as you get at the top of the Duomo, but with the river stretching out into the distance, this overlook is better laid out for photographing.
A couple of the younger tour folks knew I was a photographer and told me I should come back to the overlook at sunset. They had been there the night before — along with 300 of their closest friends. I ended up taking their advice. And it’s definitely a better sunset shot than a morning one. But even the 10 AM shot isn’t bad.
After that, it was on to Siena. Siena is about an hour south of Florence by bus. The two had been rival city-states in the Middle Ages before Florence conquered it. But that may have been blessing for modern visitors because the city center hasn’t changed much in the last few hundred years.
Siena still has a ginormous center square surrounded by a clock tower, ancient 5 and 6 story buildings and restaurants. The town was two days away from the big event of the year, a no-holds-barred horse race they do around the square. But the place still has a classic Medieval look — in you have a wide enough lens to capture it all.
Our first stop in Siena was a church dedicated to Saint Catherine. The church isn’t much to look at on a good day. But the insides were filled with scaffolding when we were there. As a result, the only real thing of interest photographically was the place they keep the head of Catherine. Yes, they keep this saint’s head in the church. I guess worshiping body parts of holy people confers some sort of spiritual power. Yup, it’s kinda creepy – but fun.
But equally weird to me, the rest of her body is in a church somewhere in Rome. Deciding who would get what body parts must have caused some hard feelings back when.
After the Saint Catherine church and town square it was onto the main event, the Siena Duomo. The Duomo is the city’s primary church and the name relates to it’s importance as well as to the fact that it has a huge dome.
The place was built between 1220-1340. (Yes, they had cost overruns in the Middle Ages as well.) An additional section of the church was started but never finished because of the Black Plague. But even as is, the place is amazing. It’s not as large as Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome but in my estimation this church is more interesting for a photographer than either St. Peters or the Florence Duomo. It just has so many design elements a good photographer can work with.
When I find a church as interesting as this one, I approach it with the same compositional thinking I would a great landscape. There’s a vastness to the place that’s similar to what you find at a great landscape. And you can shoot the location from dozens of differing angles to pull in different foreground and background elements. — The place has a ton of great paintings and sculptures to use for this and an architecture that can set them off.
The final design element of churches, the one I find most intriguing, is how the building shapes the light. These early church architects were quite brilliant in how they funneled light into a space. Their idea was to use light to suggest the vastness of the spiritual universe and the precious nature of the teaching — and encourage a deeper sense of reverence in the community.
So light from the stained glass colors the light in the area behind the alter. The light coming through the dome windows filters down from above and lights the gold leaf on fire. And of course, each of the side alcoves and arms of the church has its own unique lighting environment you can play off of.
For a photographer who like working with light, this church has lots of design surprises. But to me, the key principle is using the design elements and the light to take the viewer on a journey into this sacred space.
With this shot I was consciously using the columns and statues to lead the eye to the obvious goal, just as the architects planned. I also did some Lightroom adjustments to give the gold lit dome a different texture from the stuff below. I also needed to pull back some of the blown out color in the dome’s skylight.
Here I zoomed in to capture one of the more unusual design touches. Busts of every single pope (there’s over 200) line a row along the top section of the interior. I used their faces to contrast with the blue and gold of “Heaven” that can be seen behind the arch leading the eye into the church’s left side corridor.
And again, having so many superb design elements to choose from makes this church a must see. Plus, unlike St. Peter’s, I don’t believe this church has a single cherub. That’s an art atrocity that got popular during the Baroque and one I just don’t get.
After Siena, we drove higher into the Tuscan hills for a lunch and wine tasting. I don’t remember the name of the place, but it was a perfect choice for sampling Tuscan cuisine. After the obligatory tour of the wine cellar (that included a tasting of seriously aged balsamic vinegar), we sat down to eat.
These folks put out an amazing spread: cheeses, breads, their own olive oil and honey products plus a steady flow of reds and whites to taste. I’m not a wine guy so I can’t remember any of the names — except there were several that they called “Super Tuscan.” No, I’m not sure what the superhero reference means.
The main course was my favorite. They served a lasagna that was to die for. Generally the problem with lasagna is that the pasta itself is so thick, it dominates the other flavors. But these guys made their own lasagna and it was about half the thickness of the stuff we’re all used to — tender with a subtle flavor. That was the best I’ve ever had.
After lunch (and some major wine purchases by most of the tour), we headed further into the Tuscan hills to a quaint Medieval town called San Gimignano. The place is even more fairy tale Medieval than Siena. The old town is on top of the hill with gates and a high wall. The place is mostly one main and a few side streets that wrap around the steep location.
The most interesting element in the town are these high towers. The town has over a dozen of them. They go up 3 or 4 stories above the rest of the town buildings and are clearly used for fortification.
The story is that between 1200-1400 the town had some intense fighting between different families. And the families that could afford it, built these high towers so they couldn’t be attacked by rivals. Originally there were over 70 of these structures. Six hundred years later, there’s still enough left to make the place a World Heritage site.
I spent quite a long time at this location trying to get a good composition. But the square was so overrun with other tourists that this is as good as it got. This is the kind of place that gets inundated with tour buses from about 10-5 every day. So the only way to capture the mood is before or after that time. Here’s a classic San Gimignano shot:
After regrouping and leaving San Gimignano, we had one more wine tasting just down the hill. The second winery tour was overkill as far as I was concerned. How about a cheese tasting for a change or a chocolate tasting, even a pesto tasting would have been more fun.
But the vineyard did have a nice view of the town — if you had a good enough zoom. We were too far away for a camera phone to be effective. I finally got a shot of the old town with the sun drenching the high towers in late afternoon light.
All in all a great way to get a taste of Tuscany away from the crowds and heat of Florence. And the tour also fulfilled my deeper purpose, to get an idea of what parts of Tuscany to come back to later without the tour buses.