Nov 272012

Mare di Carta

Maritime Bookshop

Venice [ I T A L Y ]

Discovery is one of the most

rewarding aspects of travel. 

Whether you find a local 

wateringhole or a unique shop, 

usually the best things any

city has to offer are not 

available for export.  


Capt Scott’s Expedition. © Adam Marelli

Curators Matter

Does everyone remember when the news was obsessed with the idea that one day everything would be available on line?  They used to have theorist talk about how the internet would destroy personal interaction and create a society where human interface was merely a set of key strokes.  In one of the most far fetched stories, I recall a guy in Texas who decided to stay in his house for a year, ordering everything off of the internet.  The news media went bananas with this self imposed prison sentence.  Years later, the news was forgotten, the internet is part of our daily lives and I still by coffee from guys who I know by name (David & Alex).  Human interaction is not replaceable.  For a number of decades following the Second World War, the commercial world wanted to move towards complete automation.  But as it turns out, somethings still need to be done the old fashion way.

Scott in Antarctica. I had the rope in my studio and had pulled the compass and the fitting from a sculpture I made a few years back. © Adam Marelli

One area of life that will never be fully automated will be “Advice.”  The Amazon “so if you liked this…you make also like this,” algorithms are not bad, but they can only choose items from their database.  What is the best recommendation is outside of the database?

The outfits of Capt. Scott and his fellow explorers were inspirational. Try wearing that outfit to the office. © Herbert Ponting

For all of the flaws, short comings, and misgivings of people (myself included), humans are the best resource of knowledge.  Almost everything I learned, that was of any real value for art, photography, and building came from the mouth of another person.  Its ideas may be outlined in a book and occasionally they are echoed, but the full fledged understanding comes when someone explains an idea to you with examples.  So how does this apply to photography books?

Photographer Herbert Ponting explored the ins and outs of Antarctica’s ice. © Herbert Ponting

When we want to study photography, we have a few choices.  We can:

  • Go to a museum or gallery
  • Buy a book
  • Look on the internet
  • Go to Fine Art Auctions (note: a friend of mine turned me on to this last year, its great.  Unlike museums, you can ask them to take the work out of the frame and you can actually touch it.)

Depending on where you live, going to museums can be expensive or time consuming, especially if you don’t live near a major city.  Galleries are free, but not every major city has a large number of photography galleries.  For this reason, I highly recommend building a good library of photography books at home.  But what books are worth buying?  You can’t just buy the top selling titles.  A photographers collection of books will usually consist of a number of expected titles and another set of esoteric books.  All the good lessons lie in the rarer titles.

Truly a civilized bunch of men, with their pipes, tea cups and leather bound library. © Herbert Ponting

Around the Corner

After we found ourselves in two different dead ends, my girlfriend and I came out to a familiar canal.  But on the street there was a bookshop (Mare di Carta) I had not noticed before.  The door was locked for lunch, but I saw a collection of new and old books in the window which caught my eye.  Whoever owned this store knew a lot about maritime history.  It was evident from the Italian and English titles in the window.

The next day when I returned, the shop owner Cristina Giussani greeted me at the door.  She apologized for the piles of book on the floor.  She had just hired some new help and was re-organizing the shop.  It was no problem for me.  In fact I prefer to see things in a bit of flux.  It keeps the books from collecting dust.

One of the things I love about small shops is they know their merchandise inside and out.  She asked if there was anything I was particularly interested in, to which I told her…exploration photography or photography of fishermen.  She pointed me to the back corner and I soon found a few titles that were outstanding.  One of the things we count on, in an age or too many choices, are shop owners who act more like curators.  We need them to distill the millions of choices into the ones that are of interest.

The puppy is listening to a recording of his master’s voice. © Herbert Ponting


La spedizione Terra Nova (1910-1913) nelle fotografie di Herbert Ponting

Like I said I love explorers.  Polar exploration, at the turn of the century holds a special place in my heart.  I have never been able to decide if I like the absurdity of the goal to reach the Poles or the expedition clothing of leather, wool and furs more…but however you split it, guys like Scott, Shackleton, Wilkenson and Amundsen keep the wheels of imagination turning.

I wonder how the horses feel about going to Antarctica? © Herbert Ponting

When I discovered an Italian book on the photography of Herbert Ponting during Scott’s adventures I was thrilled.  The book will serve two purposes for me.  First, it will give me an ample supply of Italian text to translate as homework (I am still learning Italian, so basic text is useful).  Secondly the book is a dedicated chronicle of all aspects of polar life.  There are ghostly landscapes of ice floes and the ship mixed with intimate portraits of the men, their work and their animals.  Who would have thought to bring horses to Antarctica?

Photographer Herbert Ponting took these elegant portraits of the roughest looking men, which gives us an instant connection to an expedition that happened over 100 years ago. © Herbert Ponting

Ponting took great care to show us the on board library, science lab, and leisure quarter of the men.  It all starts to look the beginning of a Wes Anderson film.  We get the sense of the level of sophistication of the men who embarked on these expeditions.  Details worth noting:

  • At the New Year’s celebration dinner we see them drinking from proper water glasses and wine goblets. Airline companies today should be embarrassed. 
  • A typewriter was on board from scientific notes and correspondence and a telephone, but who were they calling?
  • Scott has at least 40 leather bound books in the study.
  • They brought a full size piano for entertainment.
  • Clissold, the chef, made bread from scratch.  No wonderbread for these boys.
  • They had their own sowing facility and we can see it was a Singer.

The photographs shed light on the cramped quarters and fun adventures of these early explorers.  Its great to see how the photographer took time to make dedicated portraits for each member of the crew.  We can understand their different roles by the clothes they wore and the tools they handled.  (I am starting to see where Tim O’Brien got his idea for “The Things They Carried” which is another great read.)

Nothing like a hot cup of tea topside, while sporting your balaclava. © Herbert Ponting

Back in NYC, as I pour through the book, I am grateful for Cristina and her bookshop (Mare di Carta).  Her dedicated effort is hard to come by these days.  She and I chatted about how the maritime bookshops are closing in different parts of the world.  So much the globe, as we know it, was shaped by the efforts, successes, and failings of people who travelled on ships.  With the advent of the commercial airliner, transatlantic shipping is not the reserve of industry, fishermen or cruise ships.  There was a point, when the sea was a mysterious Neverland that begged for exploration.  In spite of the ocean’s vast scale, the impression is that we have seen it all.  But if you talk to any fisherman or scuba diver they will tell you that we have hardly scratched the surface.

Had it not been for Cristina’s shop, I might have never discovered “Scott in Artartide.”  The selection of books at the mega stores like Barnes and Noble or Amazon is not bad, but since no one is really curating these collections, many of the best titles will not see the light of day.  As photographers we don’t need books with text. We need books with pictures.  Some of the best photography essays, if they were not picked up by an American or British publishing house will forever remain a mystery.  Which is why I encourage everyone to look for local shops when traveling abroad.  Talk to the owners life Cristina, who have a life long passion for books and history.  A few hours in their company could open up a new realm of inspiration for you.

Squero di San Trovaso one of the last boat yards inside of Venice where they still make and repair gondolas. © Adam Marelli

After we finished, Cristina actually connected me to a spot of actual maritime history.  Venice, which is famous for its gondolas, still has two workshops (Squero as they are called) where they make boats.  A friend of hers is married to the owner of the Squero San Trovaso.  Cristina generously offered to arrange a visit during working hours so I could see the craftsmen at work.  It was an incredible introduction to one of the oldest surviving crafts in Venice and will be the body of my next article, from the inside of the squero.

  5 Responses to “Scott’s Antarctic Expedition”

  1. Great post!
    I had a serendipitous moment myself this fall.
    I was out trying shoot in and around a sidewalk sale didn’t get anything i loved. As I was walking back to my car to go home I stumbled upon a shop that was selling books. Decided to check it out and the photographers eye a buck!
    As to your advice on building our collection, my Xmas list is all books this year :)
    Looking forward to seeing the making of gondolas

    • Hey Aaron,

      Wow, do I owe you an email from a few weeks back. Man, sorry about that.

      Good find on the Photographers Eye for a $1. thats a steal. Its amazing what pops up.


  2. I am passionate about books. Even photographs and drawings of books are something I’m intrigued by. Some of your buying suggestions for various books have introduced me to photographers I did not know so I continue to buy them and enjoy looking at them. This is a disjointed response to your post since I have been printing for 2/3hrs. and I become somewhat spacey with that endeavor. Anyway, I enjoy your writing. The fact that an awful lot of it (your posts) are such a good read is an extra bonus! Keep observing and exploring – you have fans out there. pb

  3. Too true.

    Took delivery of Nick Brandt’s ‘A Shadow Falls’ this week. I’m not big into nature images as you know but Nick’s work is more lie portraiture. It’s beautifully represented in the latest hard over. (He says don’t buy earlier runs)

    Nothing more inspiring than a print, on wall or in book form. And as I can’t afford originals to hang, books are a close second.

    • Hey Duncan,

      A few years back, when I built an apartment for an American race car driver, he had three very large Brandt images. While I am not a huge fan of that type of work, Brandt does it better than most. The books are nice too. His level of production is excellent.

      And you might be surprised, his prints are not all that expensive.


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