For the last five years my partner and I have made the 1200 mile pilgrimage to central Italy by car. We did it first in a cramped little Fiat, and have done it four subsequent times in some larger Peugeots.
Recent changes in our lifestyle have made what I came to call ‘Driverama’ too complicated. This year saw our first Italian ‘Flyarama’ which was marked by being both shorter and more structured. This new formula for holiday fun posed two problems for me, the first being reduced access to a car once in-country and the second and more challenging being a carry-on allowance for cameras.
During the ‘bootspace years’ I had taken to bringing much of my camera collection, culminating last year in the inclusion of two medium format cameras, two 35mm cameras, a couple of digital cameras and a large-format camera.
Taking much of the menagerie with me came with its own challenges, mainly wondering what I should use to shoot each subject, and constantly wishing I had brought something that was in the carpark. I decided that the limitaion would be good for me, the time had come to be decisive.
When shooting a landscape with a film camera I can rely on the film to do nice things. If I’m shooting Kodak Portra and I over-expose it, it will not only recover, it will look cool, bright and somewhat on-trend. The vignette from the old uncoated lens will pull the viewer into the frame adding romance.
If I shoot the same thing digitally it will retain its clarity, detail and colour definition in a sterile hyperreality. The landscapes I took last year felt contrived and derivative, the truth they depicted was one of reality, rather than human truth. (The ones that I shot on film looked better than their digital counterparts because of their un-real and skewed colour palette). They have an artifice about them. They are not as the world is, and are thus seen as artefacts in their own right rather than the digital landscapes which were windows to look through.
Such is my laziness of recent that I have been presenting film with light rather than pushing to get the best from my technology. I have become overly reliant on the chromogenic process for the pathos in my landscapes, perhaps in my pictures.
It was on this trip last year that I decided to enlist the help of Lee filters to return mood and pathos to my digital images. I believed that their purchase would once again render my landscapes transportational.
I packed my roller bag with glass covering 16mm up to 400mm. I included a tilt-shift, an f/1.2 prime and my new set of filters. I believed I was fated to conquer my soulless digital landscapes on this trip.
There are times when I can blame my inability to satisfactorily do justice to a scene on having the wrong equipment, it being the wrong time of day, not having the time to stop. There is something unsettling about having the time, the gear, the subject, and to lack inspiration.
As I drove through Umbria; (a part of the world that could be described as a ‘target rich environment’ for the landscape photographer), with a backseat full of kit and all the time in the world, I was dumbfounded. I had struck out early, as the sun was rising to find what I could find. I had found the utilitarian beauty that I have been lucky enough to become used to, and no pictures.
The self-imposed task of practising with my Lee filter assembly was jarring with what I felt was a need to search for truth. (I mean really). I was conflicted, there was beauty all around me ready to be photographed but what did it mean? What could one learn from a picture of a dilapidated house at the end of a snaking drive, I had forgotten.
The redolent guilt I felt at not being able to produce the goods was exacerbated by the time I was spending away from my family. Plus I was tying up the car for no real purpose. I drove in a slow loop, stopping to take a few canned shots and revisiting photographs long since taken. I was over eager to employ my tilt-shift lens which slowed my progress further. Meanwhile the sun was rising and the dawn light was growing flatter.
Umbrian life was taking place all around me, teams of cyclists making arduous climbs, groups of motor-cross riders enjoying coffees in bars, people making their way to church or work, and I was looking for the Umbrian equivalent of a shortbread tin. What I wanted was to go beyond the sunflowers, to move past the simple confluence of elemental composition and on into something that had both beauty and meaning.
One my way back to camp I passed guys riding up a hill on mountain bikes, pedalling easily up what was a relatively easy incline. A few corners after passing them I paused in a lay-by and grabbed a camera. When they saw me taking pictures they all smiled, and one did wheelie. I was immediately connected, the photo is bad, but it has backbone, story, connection, momentum.
I knew then that I needed to get away from my old haunts, to find a subject that included people doing things, making things, being in the world. In the past I’ve spent a night in a bakery in Izzalini, I’ve spent an evening in an Umbrian restaurant’s kitchen, the time had come to head to Rico’s quarry –
Beyond the Sunflowers
I joined the guys at 7am, before the sun had cleared the top of the hill. They were already working their way through a conveyor full of stone. I paused briefly to say hi and watched. It was odd as I’ve been able to hear the sounds of the quarry for years as they’ve echoed up the valley. Now I was able to assign an action to each noise.
The digger breaks up the hill into stones with a pneumatic drill. Then scoops the stones onto the conveyor with the bucket. The stones are split down the grain, using a hydraulic splitter, and then placed onto pallets ready for sale.
Rico, Stefano and Gazment work under a tin roof that sits before the hill they are gradually cutting to pieces. They begin their Sisyphean task so early because when the sun clears the top of the hill it will reach 40 degrees in the shade.
I’m immediately more comfortable, going straight to my trusty 50mm and shooting them at work. I piece together their process and marvel at its existential simplicity. Before too long the filters are on the camera, controlling the balance of exposure or enabling me to blur these men at work, even the tilt-shift lens gets to play. I am a photographer reborn, inspired and excited by my subject and feeling once again like my camera is an extension of my arm or brain or something.
We break in the shade, drinking water and eating white pizza. We talk briefly about our families and our histories, Stefano can see his house from the quarry, Gazment came here from Albania but both are here to dismantle a hill.
When we return to the quarry the sun risen above the hill and it’s 40º C. I dodge between shade and shadow shooting as Stefano splits the stone and Rico moves the full pallets. When I realise that they now won’t stop work until 2pm and that it’s going to get even hotter, Stefano fires up the blowtorch to shrink-wrap a pallet of stone.
Some of the other shots from my trip.