Jan 152012

Inside the Sassi

The city of Matera is a hilltop town

in Southern Italy.  An area known

for its agricultural history maintains

a culture that predates the Greeks.

There is a graceful age to the city,

its people and its architecture.

The day after Christmas, these guys were back at work. They were on break, enjoying the view of the Sassi across the valley. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli


The moment I stepped out of the car I could smell that Matera and my Leica’s would get along well.  The walk up to our hotel room was carpeted with patches of lichen that padded the stone walls.  Across the valley, I could see what looked like holes carved in the side of the mountains.  These ancient cavities are known as the Sassi, or caves, one of Matera’s most defining features.  Our hotel room was actually a converted Sassi.  These rooms were the first thing that caught my attention three years ago when Matera landed on my mental map.

The traffic gods blessed me because I had to stand in the middle of the street to get this shot. I must thank my girlfriend for spotting on coming cars. A bus stop in Matera. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

There is a moment of nervousness that I always encounter when I visit a new city.  The first thought is, “How will the locals respond to a photographer?”  Not everyone is happy to see a camera, in fact more people nowadays are resistant to having a picture taken.  We had just come from Rome, a city absolutely overrun by cameras.  The Romans, I find to be skittish when it comes to pictures.  They are not aggressive or overtly elusive, they are simply a population that is used to seeing many photographers, and knows how to avoid pictures.  The ironic thing that I found was, if you ask they don’t actually mind having their picture taken.  Its a culture that appreciates the option of accepting or declining.

The buildings stack one upon the next, until you reach the most important building of any ancient European town, the Church. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

Venice on a Hill

When we first made our hotel reservation for seven nights, they said, “Well since you will be staying for sooo long…”  The impression I got was that many people travel to Matera for a day or two, much like Venice in the North.  And if Matera was anything like Venice it would be a great trip.  I enjoy weeks in Venice because once you get below the surface of the Piazza San Marco and the gondolas, Venetian culture and cuisine (Yes, if you have eaten poorly in Venice it has nothing to do with the options, you were simply misguided or trapped by a tourist hole) are outstanding.

Matera’s historic center, which is at least as large the West Village and Soho combined feels like Venice on a hilltop.  The streets are very narrow, often too tight for a car and made entirely of local stone.  All of the asphalt was removed when sections of the town were restored in the 1990’s.  The switchback walkways made our encounters with people very intimate. Basically it is you and a complete stranger on a tiny walkway.  I hoped people were receptive to pictures, otherwise I was going to have a tough time.

The Italian martket (mercato) is a gold mine for discovering new faces. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

Posso (May I?)

I have to make a confession of sorts.  I love…and I mean absolutely love old people.  If your kids are out of the house and you have lived through at least three wars I am excited to meet you.  The terminology is often confused because nowadays people are offended by the implication of age, but the more years you have behind you the better.  Call it season, old, wise, whatever, the more of it you have the better.  There is a confidence that people achieve  which is devoid of bravado.  They have nothing to prove, no desire to change anyone else and they choose their battles wisely, usually preferring to let things roll of their shoulders.  Then they get together at the cafes and sip cocktails and complain about things to their friends.  A brilliant practice of addressing an attentive audience.

Clementines were in season. They were served at every meal for as a sweet. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

In Matera I had the very good fortune (after 1.5 years of Italian classes) to finally converse with people in Italian.  This opened up so many opportunities.  The people I met were shocked for a few reasons.

1.  They don’t expect American to speak Italian.

2.  The don’t expect young people to be interested in history.

3.  They really did not expect that my grandmother was born a few towns away.  She was born in Ferrandina.

Domenico is a farm, who specializes in beans and mustaches. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

Open Doors

As the week progressed, we found a rhythm with the community.  One thing I must mention is that if you have never been to Italy, the Italians take food very seriously.  Most of the restaurants were more than happy to tell us which family farms provided their meats, cheeses and produce.  Many of the food vendors also gather at the local market to sell directly to people after they supple the restaurants.  The farmers, at the market, are immensely proud of their work and I had the good fortune of chatting with Domenico, who sold beans of every kind.

Domenico was right. My beard is not nearly as cool as his. I can't wrap mine around my ears. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

In the course of our conversation, he said, “I like you, but your beard is all wrong.  You should have one like mine.”

Why? I said

“Because all great men of history, like Kaiser Wilhelm can wrap their mustache around their ears.”

This was certainly a font of knowledge I would have never arrived at on my own.


Arm in Arm

In parts of southern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and India grown men have the habit of holding hands or linking arms.  This is not the code language of the local gay scene, it is just the way men walk around.  If you tried doing this in Texas, it might be met with a different response, but personally I find it to be a very civil gesture.

I met the good doctor at the market and we walked to the bus stop, arm in arm. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

The picture above is as close as I get to a Bruce Gilden style “in your face portrait.”  I preferred to ask him if I could take the picture.  I told him I liked his hat.  He agreed.  What I did not tell him is that I liked how the architecture behind him echoed his hat and jacket, but who wants to get into details.  Either way, it ended up being a fun portrait and afterwards, he took me by the arm and walked me to his bus stop.  He asked me where I was from, what I thought of Matera, and if I had eaten lunch yet.  I told him we were headed off at the moment, but were keen to eat soon.  We parted at the stop and I plan on brining him a print next year.

Pepino, the tailor, was performing the Italian hand katas typical of the region. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

A Tailor’s Shop

The last gentleman I want to introduce you to is Giusseppe “Pepino” Buona a local tailor.  Like many Italians Pepino and I started to discuss politics at the market.  Well, to be honest he was discussing, I was listening.  He asked if we had thirty minutes to “perdere” (to lose).  We were in no hurry, so he took us over to his shop where he makes wedding gowns and other women’s clothing.  My girlfriend modeled a jacket and a beaded shirt to be worn over a wedding gown.  The details on all of the clothes were spectacular.  The hand beaded coverall she put on weighed a few pounds.  A very impressive garment.

All the while, he lamented the lack of quality of modern clothing as Italians are not able to compete with the low cost of Chinese fabrics.  But to his pleasure, many people still prefer fabrics from the foothills of the Himalayan mountains.  These exceptional wools and cashmeres command top dollar and an expert hand to assemble.  When he was younger he used to make dresses for Elizabeth Taylor.  He worked in a popular shop in Rome and she would spend an monthly fortune having clothes made.  I am sure he was saying “Those were the glory days” but I did not understand the expression.  My intention was to write down the expression and look it up.  The idiomatic expression fell pray to a delightful bottle of Aglianico, their local varietal.  Oh well.  There will be a next time.

Giorgio lives around the corner. He was born in Matera and comes out for a smoke almost everyday. It was a bit cold for his liking, but happy it was not raining. Leica M9, 50mm Summicron. © Adam Marelli

If you are a professional you can skip this part, but if you are a photographer who is nervous about shooting strangers here are a few tips.

1.  Try to take one good portrait in a day.  Do not get overwhelmed by all of the amazing faces.

2.  Ask an agreeable looking stranger (preferably with an interesting face) if you can take their picture.  Its will force you to take the shot.

3.  When someone asks why do you want to take their picture, pay them a compliment.  “I like your hat or your earrings is usually enough.

4.  Take three shots.  Most people are stiff on the first few shots.  Burn the first shot or two and move a little bit.  In those few seconds they tend to loosen up and give you a natural pose.

5.  If the picture still feels forced, compose the shot, hold the camera steady and pick your head up and talk to them.  Once they feel like you are no longer taking the picture, they will return to normal.  Then CLICK.  You’ve got your picture.


Enjoy-Adam Marelli


  17 Responses to “Matera [ ITALY ]”

  1. I love the character in of their faces. Elderly people and young children are my favorite subjects. Have you tried processing these in B&W? I bet the would be quite interesting. My guess is there were not many young and middle age people in a town like this. Happy travels!

    • Thanks Lisa,

      I shot some BW Film (ilford delta 400) and some of the digital were processed in BW. They will be in the next post which will focus more on the town and architecture of Matera.

      The thing I find with middle age/young people is that they look very American to me. Its crazy how popular american culture is so influential, even in quasi remote areas. The Elder Tribesman have a better sense of style. I will post a picture of a family I photographed on the steps of a church and you can let me know what you think.


  2. Great blog, Ad. Arm in arm; I like that. I did that with my father and never really thought about it. It was just the right thing to do. I don’t recall any of my friends doing that.

  3. Hi Adam,
    Great post as usual and good pictures. The doctor portrait was really good. Knowing the local custom is very important, like walking hand in hand. I once took a flight from Boston to San Francisco to meet my sister-in-law’s family. As I walked the length of the plane to my seat, everyone was staring at me. Or maybe that’s how I felt. Then late that night, when I met my brother-in-law who came to pick me from the airport, he gave me a perplexed look. That was my first visit to the United States. I was wearing a pink check shirt. It is nothing unusual in India, from where I come from, or in Qatar, where I live right now. Later we had a good laugh.

    Now I don’t wear the pink shirt, even in Qatar or India.

    Mo Han

    • Hey Mo Han,

      Great story. I love how airplanes can be a miss mash of customs until it lands at a new airport. I remember one time we flew out from Cairo from one of their smaller terminals and my girlfriend did not have her head wrapped. She is a totally liberal NYC born and bred lady. But she even said she wanted to cover up.

      But dont get rid of that pink shirt. I love how Indians and even Italians wear bright colors.


  4. Very nice portraits. Especially the first one of the man with the beard, I think.

  5. Adam
    A wonderful essay that succinctly describes how you get your amazing portraits. There are so many useful lessons and tips interspersed along with the picture and vignettes that it will take a newbie like me a long, long time to learn & internalize. Looking forward to your next essay.
    Best regards & thank you

    • Hey Rao,

      Happy to hear you enjoyed the article. When I talk to people I am surprised to hear that they think I “know” the people in the photographs. These are complete strangers and thats part of the fun of it. Over the years I have enjoyed meeting new faces and taking their pictures. Everything happens so quickly, but there are simple techniques for making them feel at ease and capturing a decent moment. And if at all possible, bring them a small print or email them an image as a thank you.

      Next essay will be out later this week.


  6. A great post and and view of Matera through your portraiture, thanks.
    Rgrds, Alain G

  7. Wonderful photos as usual. I like the casual and sincere approach to your portraits and appreciate the Gilden reference. Do you think you’re more prone to working a pace or also have your moments of shooting from the hip?

    • Hey Luke,

      It all depends on the day. In Matera I was not shooting aggressively which allowed me to take my time. This is my preferred approach. But there were some pictures that jumped up out of nowhere. I rarely shoot from the hip or over my head. The results do not interest me. Shooting from the hip is like watching someone else buy lottery tickets. Even if they win, it does not effect you so who cares? Its all chance and luck like a huge Dada experiment. I would say if people want to play the chance card they need to push it further.

      A few days of hanging out with conceptual artists would have any hip shooter running back to the viewfinder. Haha.

      The next post will have some chance encounters for you.


  8. These pictures are wonderful.There is a huge difference between south and north of Italy.People who live in north of Italy are cold and think only at their job instead who lives on south of Italy is friendly.Ciao e spero di poter partecipare ad un tuo workshop( I’ve writen in italian because you told you speak Italian)

    • Grazie Maurizio,
      Si si ho capito che cosa hai detto. : )
      I will switch back to english for everyone reading…yes the north and the south are very different places. Sometime they feel like two different countries.
      Di dove sei?
      Un abbraccio-Adamo

  9. Very nice article and photos. I also shoot people and street mostly but i feel i could enjoy some town photos as well.
    Just got back from 5 days in Rome and had no problem shooting in the street but that’s probably due to the fact that i speak Italien.I shall be in Matera next month and thought spending two days there , i hope it’s enough.
    Matera looks like a great place
    Take care

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