Jan 242012


Can a city preserve its history without

living in the past?  Matera challenges

the trends of tourist cities by retaining

its local character without compromising

its integrity. 

I ran across town to get this shot. Once the clouds cleared, I knew there was going to be great light on the buildings with a dark backdrop. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


Progress and preservation are in a constant battle.  We love the things of the past, but want the conveniences of the present.  We like our cell phones, but hate cell phone towers.  We love our cars, but hate pollution.  Technology and history are a catch 22 which leave many of us undecided.  Artist, Writer and Critic John Ruskin reminded us that we do not own a city or its monuments.  Our job is to preserve them for posterity and most of all not rip them down to make room commercial enterprises.


“Be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated,

that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether

 we shall preserve the buildings of our past or not.  We have no 

right whatever to touch them.  They are not ours.  They belong 

partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations

of mankind who are to follow us.”

-John Ruskin

(The Seven Lamps of Architecture)


Matera is an unbroken chain of stone and terra cotta. A photographer could not ask for anything more. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


Photographers travel to the ends of the earth searching for scenes with continuity.  Imagine an Ansel Adam’s photograph with a cell phone tower poking through the trees.  What a horrible thought!  As we look longingly at the archives of photography, one things becomes apparent.  Whether we like it or not the world is always changing.  But not everyone is making the same bad decisions.  There are cities which do not have a single Starbucks, who refuse to import Chinese knock offs, and who even banned billboard advertising.

From a photographer’s stand point, advertising is a scam.  An advertisement is an individually conceived images plunked right in the middle of your photo.  Its like the TV at the end of the bar, you just can’t help but look at it.  Most of the things that are advertised we dont need, want or even care about.  Advertising might have dignified roots, but is now a visual pollution which murders urban landscapes.  The architectural continuity of most cities is so polluted that we can no longer see what is really there, because the neon signs and flashing lights disfigure the surface of a building beyond recognition.  After my trip to the island of Tanna, I wanted to visit a city, which had a continuos view, free from the clutter of chain stores and strip malls.

This was taken from the second floor of a church. I would prefer him two steps to the left, but cars still drive on these roads, so I can't fault him. Maybe next time...Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


In the 1990’s Matera became a Unesco World Heritage site.  It was a much needed change for this forgotten southern Italian city.  The town square was covered in asphalt.  The piazzas looked more like parking lots and the mismash of signs and shops stunk of a reject from a Betsy Johnson collection.  The jack hammers were rounded up the dust started flying.  Fast forward twenty years.  Matera was carefully restored to its modest roots.  There are no gold leafed walk ways or over the top cathedrals?  The city washed its face, put on a clean shirt and drew a line in the sand.  They decided to take pride in their civic heritage.  Unlike the nationalistic uprisings that lead to Fascism and the Nazis, this is a Soft Power move.  It is a modest pride.

Morning Light, even tones, just one figure short of a great image. Oh well...remember "We need to milk the cow a lot to make a little cheese. -Henri Cartier-Bresson" Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. Adam Marelli


The historic center of Matera, which is about the size of Soho and the West Village (in NYC) is made from one stone.  A beige limestone, quarried from the valleys nearby, make up every wall of the city.  As a photographer, this makes for an unbelievable setting.  It is one of the few cities I have ever visited, where you want most of the background in focus.  The background supports every photo and adds a sense of place that is distinct to Matera.

This is where we learn to set up our shots in advance. We cover this practice in my One-on-Ones and workshops. If you have never learned this technique, you don't know what you're missing. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


As we discussed in earlier articles about Henrí Cartier-Bresson, one of his approaches to photography was to sit and wait.  He would frame a scene and wait for a subject to appear.  Sometimes the right person would wander down the street, while other times the gods were not  in his favor.  HCB travelled through southern Italy in the 1950’s and I wanted to see if it was possible to find a scene and wait for a subject.  Now just so everyone understands how this waiting game works, I would estimate that 4 out of 5 times the picture does not happen.  But it is not impossible.  In one of my favorite pictures from the trip I was at the right place at the right time and the gods were shining on me.

This photo is a testament to being ready. There is a building that blocked my view on the left. All I could hear were his footsteps. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


On our first sunny morning, we headed out earlier than usual.  We took a detour up an interesting side street.  Between two buildings, I noticed some clothes drying on the line.  The scene was wedged between two buildings, with a strong side light cascading down the road.  All I needed was a person to tie the scene together.  I set up the shot and within ten seconds there was a person.  The man was dressed in an overcoat with a scarf and a hat.  I could not have asked for a better figure.  He took a few steps and the CLICK!  I fired the shot and he went on his way.  It all happened so fast that I was a bit shocked.  Normally I don’t shoot the “Lone figure on the street” but I set up for the shot and it happened.

If dogs work for Elliot Erwitt, why not try them yourself? Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

In another fortunate case, I found a curving staircase with a softly lit wall in the background.  The scene was perfect, but where was my subject.  As we were climbing the stairs a mother and daughter popped out of a nearby house with their little dog leading the way.  The approach looked bleak.  They were walking slowly and the dog was hardly a icon of doghood.  But as they got closer, the dog lurched forward at my girlfriend.  As the whole scene unfolded I waited patiently until the dog made its leap.  As the red sweater sprung forward the composition came alive for a fraction of a second and CLICK! It came together.  These pictures, which are super fun to compose require that you:

  1. Identify a scene.
  2. Place yourself in an ideal position (even if no one is there yet)
  3. Wait…wait…wait
  4. When something happens CLICK!
  5. You’ve got your shot

If no one shows up for your picture, at least you can enjoy the view and a nice glass of Aglianico (Matera's local red wine). Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


Like I said before this strategy works out 4 out of 5 times, or 3 out of 5 on a good day.  But when you consider that someone like Robert Frank took 28,000 pictures to get 83 final images for “The Americans” the number start to look a lot better.  HCB spoke of his anxieties about photography.  Aside from being a self proclaimed nervous person he was always worrying what would happen next.  Try taking a few photos in this style and you will start to appreciate HCB’s touchy nerves.  This type of photography is so delicate and fleeting that a slight move in any other direction will kill a shot.  Or worse yet… you wait forever and nothing happens.  I am posting a bunch of shots here that have no people just to illustrate that WE DO NOT WIN EVERYDAY.  But you have to PLAY to WIN.

View the full set of images on my Flickr Page.

Enjoy-Adam Marelli



  10 Responses to “How To Photograph A City”

  1. Adam, a fine entry indeed.
    I love the image of the lone walking man.
    Did you take one where only his shadow is in the frame?
    Just wondering how that would look.
    Please look at what I did with the M9 at an International Hockey test;
    Please give me some sites/books/info to read more on HCB.


    • Hey Danny,
      Glad you enjoyed the entry.
      I had a look at the blog. Congrats for taking on an action sport with a Leica. Forget about the “rolling eyes of DSLR users and huge zooms.” Fun to shoot with a smaller set up. One thing I recommend is to shoot a gray card to deal with the green field. When I shot at the US Open last year the court color really messed with the color balance.

      As for Cartier-Bresson, drop me an email (marelli13@gmail.com) to let me know more about your interest/direction/goals and we can set you up with something. One thing I would absolutely recommend is his DVD “The Decisive Moment” produced by the International Center for Photography (ICP). Its Cartier-Bresson, speaking in his own words (and its in english).


  2. Before I clicked this entry, i thought the key photo was taken by HCB lol. Very nice photos! I like the geometry in them, especially the second one. There’s a good chain between the roof and the stairs, linking the near sight and far sight!

    • Hey Antony,

      Haha. Alas it was only me.

      There was so much to play with in the city. I look forward to returning. Happy to hear you enjoyed the entry.


  3. This is a wonderful illustration of a type of photography which I find very difficult to get good results with.

    Add my name to your list of people who would like to attend one of your one-on-one workshops (and others) if you make it to South Africa.

    • Hey Guy,

      Happy to hear you enjoyed the post. There are certainly a few techniques which can be applied to city shooting.

      If you would like information for the “One on Ones” I will be sure to send them your way. At the moment there are no plans for South Africa, but one never knows.


  4. Hi Adam, stumbled on this site whilst surfing the net. Glad I did. Loved these shots and wished I could do so. I am interested to attend your workshop in Kuala Lumpur. When would it be?

    Best regards. Ungku

    • Hey Ungku,

      Happy to hear that you are enjoying the site. The KL workshop is looking like it will be just after Chinese New Year in 2013. The entire 2013 workshop schedule should be posted by the middle of November.


  5. Matera! Indeed a city that demands a visit. Beautiful architecture! Loved your shots as well. And i totally get what you mean by the importance of anticipation, having encountered several moment where I was momentarily late.

    • Hi Sumit,

      You are absolutely correct. The first times we notice “moments of anticipation,” its usually because we missed them. It still happens to me. Its tough to always be on our game, but the more we practice the easier it is to spot.


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