Street Photography of Florence, Italy
by Laura Walter
“When I’m photographing, I see life. That’s what I deal with. I don’t have pictures in my head...I don’t worry about how the picture is going to look. I let that take care of itself... It’s not about making a nice picture. That anyone can do.” -Garry Winogrand
The province of Florence has an area of 3,514 kilometers, with a population of 1.004 million1. The city itself is a masterpiece, housing artistic inspiration, historical significance and attracting a few million tourists each year. It was where the Renaissance was born, giving way to a new era of geniuses such as Cosimo Medici and Brunelleschi. Although there is a relaxed culture in Italy, where lunch may take three hours and a few friends might sit over a glass of wine for a whole afternoon, there is always constant motion in the streets. It is a place where so much happens each day that it is hard to believe that there are moments when one is completely alone and independent.
I have now lived in Florence for a month, I have grown accustomed to the slow movement of people walking on the sidewalks and the men who sit on a bench all day and watch passer-bys but something still draws my attention to moments when I find myself curiously looking at individuals who stand alone. There is something interesting to me to find these people who separate themselves from the actions that surrounds them. I found myself capturing these moments with my camera as a sort of way for me to remember to stop and take a breath.
The first of these photographs I shot was the one of an elderly man sitting alone on a bench in the gardens of Piazza Michelangelo. I was intrigued by the way he watched, quietly, as groups of Italians, Americans, Chinese, and Germans walked through the rows of flowers “oohing” and “awing” at their beauty. He seemed not interested in the beauty of the flowers, but rather the interactions among the people. I began to think that this is probably one of his weekly routines, to come to the gardens and watch the ridiculous tourists try to find their way around each other, but the longer I watched him the more I realized he wasn’t laughing, he wasn’t angry, he was just there, among the flowers, as a part of the garden. With this photograph I wasn’t changing that moment, just capturing it, questioning what it might look like later when brought up in Photoshop on my screen. “There is a transformation, you see, when you just put four edges around it. That changes it. A new world is created.”2
As my time in Florence progressed I continued to try to find these moments throughout the city and during the weekends. On a trip to the seaside we stopped at a small town called Santa Marghertia Ligure whose population is estimated to be around 10,2003. It was here that I took the photograph of the man fishing on the scoglie. I was entranced by the vastness of the sea behind him and the length of his fishing pole. He was
close to a beach where pedestrians laid out in the sun, absorbing the rays and little children played in the rocky water, yet his attention was full-heartedly given to the blue-green water filled with small fish. He captured my attention specifically because of this. I was god-smacked by the gorgeous scenery, while he was enthralled by the small six-inch long fish swimming below the rock.
On the same small bank of rocks sat another man, with star tattoos covering his bare back, shoes by his side and not a single hair on his head. Immediately I knew he’s got to be an interesting character and I couldn’t help but take portraits of him overlooking the boat yard beyond. At the moment when I took the photo I wondered to myself if he would be bothered by someone taking his portrait so deviantly. I hadn’t seen anyone else with his same demeanour which wasn’t entirely surprising since Santa Marghertia was a coastal get-away town to vacation in. In some way though, he fit in, the stark contrast of his inked body and the majestic ships residing in the port created the perfect contrast.
The next photo in this series that I captured was of the man smoking outside a doorway on Vei dei Pecori, a street residing off the side of the Duomo. This was another instance where I felt a need to capture someone observing others. The street looks somewhat barren, but that is by choice on my behalf. In reality there are countless people roaming around looking at the store-fronts and the lit up gelato cafés. This man looked so well dressed but in some way still casual. His face bore wrinkles and his hair was slicked back with the definition of a comb. He embodied my vision of an older Italian man, down to the glossy leather shoes he was wearing and I felt it was important to capture this essence. As I now look at the photo I begin to notice things I hadn’t seen before when taking it, such as the stains around the doorbells or the white paint marks left on the top left panel of the doorway. These too are things that will now remind me of Italy since these imperfections can be found all throughout the city. A moment, such as this, when a well dressed man is standing outside a rugged doorway, suddenly became important.
A few hours later I found myself getting gelato at a cafe near the Arno river. I was sitting on a bench outside when I saw a somewhat unhappy looking man coming down the road. From a distance I thought he stood out against the backdrop of teenage music playing on the moped nearby and the young couple that had just walked past with their child. He slowly kept walking, I followed my gut instinct and began to take photo after photo of him approaching. The closer he got the more I saw his personality in his demeanour. He wore his watch on the inside of his wrist, something I remember seeing in a lot of old films. His shirt had a cross pinned to it, marking him as a Christian, an unbuttoned button on his shirt and a toothpick hanging out of his mouth. All these details captured my attention, more so than the young couple who had walked by. I wondered why that was, were they just physically not as interesting too document? Perhaps. For all I know my eye is bias towards these figures that emanate charisma and temperament. He had a look on his face which just showed a thought behind it. He wasn’t walking down the Arno, admiring the beauty, he was digging in his pocket for something, thinking, maybe, about what lay ahead for the week.
The next few days I noticed my eyes had started to seek out these sorts of portraits. I was no longer a casual observer of the Duomo, I was hunting for portraits of those alone in such a crowded city.
It was during this time that I saw a woman sitting at a bus stop on Via Giuseppe Verdi. Her vintage sunglasses and headband holding her hair back immediately grabbed my attention. She looked somewhat tired, holding a grocery bag and her purse in her lap. She sat alone with no distinguishable expression on her face. Yet another observer of the busy lifestyle that surrounded her.
Walker Evans once said, “Stare. It is the way to educate your eye, and more. Stare, pry, listen, eavesdrop. Die knowing something. You are not here long.” That is the truth isn’t it? With only a few more days of my trip to Florence left, I have started to realize that I wish I had integrated myself more with these sorts of moments. I could show you the countless number of photos of the Ponte Vecchio that I have, or the beautiful church Santa Maria Novella, but it is these photographs of unknown people that speak more loudly to me. They show that the people of Italy don’t mind taking time aside to watch others gaze at gardens, pursue fish, dangle their feet in the water, smoke a cigar, chew on a toothpick or wait silently for a bus.
1Google Search “Population of Florence, Italy”
2 Interview with Garry Winogrand: http://jnevins.com/garywinograndreading.htm
3 ItalianVisits.com: Welcome to Santa Margherita Ligure