Carl Burton is a New York photographer whose work was exhibited at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts in Color and Light: Photographs by Carl Burton in 2011. He often works with a panoramic camera capturing landscapes and cityscapes such as The Dogana, Grand Canal, Venice, Italy, pictured above. Curator of Education, Alice Novak, recently caught up with the artist to ask him about the creation of this photograph.
Above: Carl Burton (American, born 1937), The Dogana, Grand Canal, Venice, Italy, 1996, Digital inkjet print on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of the artist, 2011.5.2
What is it that attracts you to the city of Venice?
Venice is the most seductive of all cities with some of the most beautiful light on earth. It’s a photographer’s paradise, especially in the mornings, late afternoons, and early evenings when the sun is low. Early morning is actually my favorite time. I like to wander through the almost empty city, my camera on a tripod slung over my shoulder. Then, I can take the time to look and discover.
I first visited in August during the 1970s. My late wife Carol and I had been driving through Italy’s deep south and decided one evening that we’d had our fill of mountains and dusty villages. “How about driving to Venice?” I asked. “Why not?” we agreed, and early the next morning we fled Bari, driving some 510 miles along the Adriatic coast. We arrived in Venice on a sweltering afternoon, exhausted and deeply disappointed. Indeed, our first visit to Piazza San Marco was so hot and crowded, that we felt we’d made a terrible mistake. To make matters worse, Carol’s diabetes soon acted up, and she was hospitalized. For the next six days, I was on my own. What looked at first like a disaster, turned out in the end to be good luck. In the hospital, Carol, who was studying Italian literature, roomed with six Italian women who spoke no English. They and the hospital staff were kind and welcoming, and she quickly learned more about the real Italy than she could in a year of graduate school. As I made friends in our pensione and explored the city, I realized that the longer you stayed, the more you looked, the more the city opened up and welcomed you. What we had believed would be our only visit to Venice became the first of many, and for a long time, we visited every year.
What is the story of this picture?
I took this photo, in May of 1996, during a special and sad time. Carol had died in February, and on our last visit, she had asked to be cremated. Because she loved Venice, she asked if I would take her ashes there and scatter them in the lagoon? “Look on your trip”, she said, “as a celebration of our life together.” I took the photo not long before I carried out her wishes. Friends were joining me, and as I awaited them, I explored my hotel. One afternoon, I walked out on the hotel’s taxi landing and looked down the Grand Canal toward Palladio’s great church San Giorgio Maggiore in the distance. Directly across stood the Punta della Dogana, which was then the disused customs house. (It’s now a museum of modern art, palazzograssi.it, and a wonderful example of historic preservation.) It could be an interesting shot, I thought, and ran for my camera.
What caught your eye about this composition?
I was using a panoramic camera, a Fuji 6×17 that produces a negative that measures 2 1/4 inches by 7 inches, a format perfect for this particular image. As I set up the camera, I looked carefully through the viewfinder. The stormy sky over San Giorgio on the left was both beautiful and threatening. The warm light on the water taxi formed a nice contrast. I liked the way the pilings gave a vertical interest to the picture plane, and how the walkway on the right drew your eye to the canal, along the opposite shore to the Dogana, then left across the lagoon to San Giorgio Maggiore and the approaching storm. I don’t actually think this analytically when I shoot. I simply say to myself, that image sings.
Have you been back to Venice recently?
Yes, my wife Ruthie and I were there in September on a tour called “Dark Age Brilliance” (Martin Randall), visiting early Christian and Byzantine churches in Ravenna, Cividale, and Porec, Croatia, ending up in Torcello, Venice, Our glimpse of Venice from there was so marvelous, that we regretted not staying longer.
What are your thoughts about Venice today?
I’m worried about it. Too many tourists, too many huge cruise ships, stirring up the canal water and undermining the foundations of Venice’s buildings. Too much flooding—the most recent Aqua Alta [Tide Peak] was astonishingly high. Save Venice is very important to me.
And finally, the coronavirus, which stopped this year’s Carnival. This pandemic is just the latest in a series of plagues that have struck Venice. You can’t see it in my photograph, but just out of sight on the right side of the image is the Church of Santa Maria della Salute (health). After the Black Plague of 1630, the church was constructed and dedicated as thanks for the city’s deliverance.