Taking License, and Light, in Umbria

October 13, 2013  •  Leave a Comment

The Italian province of Umbria offers a smorgasbord (or whatever the Italian name for smorgasbord would be) for photographers. There is an endless array of attractive subjects--cathedrals and campaniles, ancient hillside towns, vineyards and fecund valleys. But I like to photograph people, and what Italy offers me is a sort of license.

I don't normally approach strangers in the United States and ask to photograph them. Perhaps I should, but there are inhibitions. Lots of Americans think that a guy with a camera is intruding on their privacy, or fixing to scam them, or worse. In Italy, I don't feel these inhibitions. Perhaps I am imposing on the innate hospitality of the Italians, but I am fairly confident that when I approach someone and ask "Per favore, posso fare le una photo?" they know I'm just a dumb tourist who mangles their language but probably won't commit any additional crimes. So they genially cooperate. They'll even sit still while I fiddle for the correct exposure and mangle the language further: "Uno in piu, per favore."

So it was today when I visited Bevagna during Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman's Italian photo workshop. Bevagna is an ancient town, founded when Etruscans held sway on the Italian peninsula. It sits astride the river Topino, which eventually becomes a tributary of the Tiber, flowing through Rome a hundred miles to the southwest. I have been in other Italian towns like Bevagna, with old stone walls and fortifications along a river. Sometimes, it turns out, those walls and fortifications defended points where the water's flow could be dammed, conquering downstream towns by cutting off their water supply. But if there is any such cruelty in Bevagna's past, it seems certain that the statute of limitations has expired.

It is today a peaceful place. On a Sunday afternoon, older men sit on stools in patches of sunlight, watching more nimble folks amble by on the narrow stone streets. In church doors, men wearing purple shawls, emblematic of membership in a Catholic confraternity, gather for a procession through the town. Children in scout uniforms march past the fountain in the central square. A woman buys two gelato cones and feeds one to her dog. In a side street, a young man welds something for an improvement project in a home that looks many centuries older than he is.

Because the people are so peaceable, and kind to strangers, I am free to look for light. I am not sure that there's any truth in the notion that certain places have light with unique qualities. It's all coming from the same sun, after all, and passing through the same atmosphere, more or less. But it may be that there are places that encourage one to appreciate their light, and if that is true, then Bevagna is one of them.

It's a different orientation. Instead of looking for a subject, and then trying to make the light work, I look for the light, confident the subject will both appear and be cooperative. It can be direct sunlight, glowing through a mane of white hair. It can be reflected light, bouncing off an old stone facade into the open doorway of a dark church. It doesn;t even have to be sunlight; it can be the light from a welding torch.

Italy is an enlightening place. I wish I could work this way more often.






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