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
| WHO OWNS A CITY |
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.”
(The Seven Lamps of Architecture)
| BILLBOARDS & NEONS |
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.
| UNESCO |
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.
|ONE STONE |
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.
| THE WAITING GAME |
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.
| SHOOTING BLIND |
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.
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:
- Identify a scene.
- Place yourself in an ideal position (even if no one is there yet)
- When something happens CLICK!
- You’ve got your shot
| THE STATISTICS |
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.