The Workshop Matera
[ I T A L Y ]
A favored backdrop for Italian cinema,
Matera lies tucked into the hills one
hour west of Bari. It is now attracting
a host of international travelers who
want to take in the sun, enjoy a slower
pace of life and listen to the cowbells
in the valley below.
All year people have been asking me, why run a workshop in Matera? Why not Rome or Florence or Sienna? In truth I have nothing against any of the other Italian cities. Since the 1500’s they have been attracting visitors who are enamored with intoxicating culinary treasures, world famous art and buildings that make modern architects look like mental patients who can only be trusted with wooden blocks. But Italy is much more than the famous Grand Tour cities which transformed artists such as Peter Paul Rubens and M.C. Escher.
Only an hour’s flight from Rome, Matera feels like another planet. Over the years, I have discovered some cities that for me were slow on the uptake. Like a first date that starts with spilling wine on your date, eventually you may recover but it’s no way to kick things off. On the other hand, Matera was the date where you were so excited you could not decide whether to giggle or scream. Two years ago we opted for both, when my girlfriend and I came for New Year’s. We have made a pact to be nowhere near NYC for the New Year’s celebration. And in 2011 we decided Matera might be a good spot to usher in 2012.
A town famous for its caves and farmers might seem like an odd place for a New Year’s party, but Matera balances an old way of life with much younger wine bars and even a beer hall. Additionally, I have a family connection to the area I wanted to explore. My grandmother was born in Ferrandina, a town about twenty minutes from Matera. While I must still have some family in the area, she was the youngest of fourteen children. Her parents gave her to an aunt and uncle who were unable to have children. This meant that she spent her early years in Ferrandina and then moved to Bari on the coast. What did this mean to me in terms of Matera? Almost nothing…most of our relatives in the area would not know me from a hole in the wall and based on her stories of childhood, the outlying towns were filled with bandits and thieves. But who were we to be deterred by scant information and the Nonna’s quasi-fictitious tales (mi dispiace Nonna!)
Matera is one of the most ideal places to work on your photography. The unfortunate aspect of any city is that as its popularity increases the city changes (Personally, I am torn between the exposure which helps the area and the prospect of it becoming overrun) Fortunately, as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Matera stands a good chance of preserving its way of life and keeping tight control over any growth in the historic section of town. Times Square could have used UNESCO in the 1940’s because it is an architectural folly that is appalling to any New Yorker.
Some of the things I enjoy most about Matera are the following:
Continuity: The entire city is built out of one type of stone. There are no neon signs, billboards or other advertising disasters to deal with. The background possesses a unity that is very hard to find in a contemporary city.
Vertical Streets: Everyone loves tiny streets, unless of course they are dangerous, but this is not the case in Matera. I often describe the streetscape of Matera as looking like someone drove a mountain through the base of Venice. You can shoot up, down and across the entire valley. It offers an endless variety for stacking buildings, people and the landscape on top of one another. These are exactly the types of cities that influenced M.C. Escher.
Architecture: Many of the homes and hotels are built into the 11th century caves that dot the landscape. I am not sure if it is the effect of actually being in the mountainside, but I have never slept so well in my life. The structures are completely local and set Matera apart from other places around the globe.
The Food: I will save everyone from reading the adjectives and superlatives that fit with the kitchens of Matera. All I will say is that there are fresh flavors we enjoyed while there that are quite difficult to find anywhere else in the world. Some of the highlights are the sausages, cheeses (cow, sheep and goat), and the wild produce. While at dinner on the last evening, a young farmer girl (not sure what you call a female farmer) brought in wild asparagus and arugula. It came from the hills on the other side and was not farmed or cultivated. One bite of wild produce will prove that even the most ecological, organic farmers cannot compete with Mother Nature.
A DAY IN THE LIFE
When we returned to Matera, I decided to take it slow. The days were warm with clear blue skies and the evenings cooled enough to wear a sweater. The camera did not leave my bag for three days. All I wanted to do was run my eyes over the city until my excitement for taking pictures was too much to restrain. While it might seem insane, I much prefer getting visually reacquainted with a place before taking a single frame. I had three luxurious days of watching pictures come and go, like waves on the coastline.
So what is a typical day like in Matera? It goes something like this: After a delightful sleep in your cave, you are awakened by the sun creeping over the sassi around 6:00am. It’s just early enough to roll over for another hour before the day begins. Downstairs at our hotel Sextantio Le Grotte della Civita, Mirella has breakfast laid out on simple wooden tables inside an 11th century church. Italian breakfasts are lighter than their English or American counterparts. The sausages wait for dinner. In their place are fresh fruits, locally baked breads, cheeses ranging from ricotta drizzled with honey to scamorza, which is a lightly smoked mozzarella, are served alongside fresh tomatoes and jams. The obligatory boost of caffeine comes in every variety imaginable, from espresso to caffe corretto, which has a dash of booze if you are having that kind of morning. We feast like royalty, or at least until my girlfriend reminds me that I don’t want to eat myself back to sleep.
After our heroic start, the sun is fully up and we can hear the shepherds taking the cows up the ravine. We grab our cameras and head out to explore the endless streets. Matera is large enough to walk in a day but complex enough that it will take years before I touch every corner, although it won’t keep us from trying. We wander up, down, and around every staircase, balcony, and tower until lunch.
One of our favorite lunch spots was a place aptly named Soul Kitchen. While the name might sound like a Baptist BBQ, I assure you there was nothing southern about this place. Owner/chef Mimo heads up this charming spot just off of Piazza Lanfranco. As visitors to Italy will discover, there is no such thing as a little taste or a quick meal. Mimo insures that you try enough of everything, including the aglianico and homemade Limoncello. While the wheelbarrow in front might look like decoration, we discovered that it was for rolling overfed photographers home. And if you are not completely spoiled by his food, then his charming head of house Lorena will cast a spell on you that will have you there at least three times in a week (I think we actually went there four times.)
The afternoon sun that hits the city bounces off of the stone facades, opening brilliant lighting opportunities for portrait and street photography. Some of the participants opted to grab a gelato and camp out along the squares. Pictures would simply fall into their laps. And since car traffic is heavily restricted you do not need to worry about getting mowed down by a taxi cab.
Day turns into night, and the cowbells in the valley mean that it’s almost dinner time. If you peek over the stone walls into the ravine, you might be lucky enough to spot a wild fox trailing behind the cows. Life in all of its forms teems through the streets and valleys of Matera. But for us, we would try to rinse the excitement off before heading out to dinner. Who could be hungry at this point?! With all the stairs and alleyways, we were all hungry come nightfall.
For five glorious days we shot to our heart’s content, met some amazing people, tested the limits of our belts and had more laughs than we can remember. Over the next few weeks, I will be sharing some more of the adventures from the workshop and the follow-up days in Rome.
OPEN SPOT FOR LONDON WORKSHOP
Until then I am getting ready for the Workshop in London at the Stephen Bartels Gallery and then the workshop in Prague. One of the photographers actually broke his ankle and needed to drop out, so there is a slot available if anyone is interested.
And if you would like to join us next year back in Matera, I will be announcing the 2014 Workshop schedule by the end of June. Drop me an email to get on the list which is bound to fill up quickly firstname.lastname@example.org