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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.