All posts by Tom Dills

Icons and Creativity

Tuscan countryside near Montalcino, Italy

When visiting a place known for being a photographic destination, it isn’t unusual for certain locations to be “famous” as sites of iconic photographs.  We all have our favorite examples.  One of them for me was the photos I made of the blurry gondolas in Venice.  While I captured the obvious shot, I also tried to find my own view, to make it my own, in a sense.

Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta in the Tuscan countryside near Vitaleta, Italy

While on our photo tour in Tuscany, several of the students asked about specific locations and whether we would be going there.  Jeff (Curto) indicated that those spots were not on the itinerary but that we would likely pass by a few of them.  Jeff was very familiar with the locations, but cautioned us that for a number of reasons – namely conditions such as weather, season or time of year – we would not be able to capture the photos those folks had in their minds and had seen on Flickr, Facebook or National Geographic.  But, photographers being photographers, they wanted to go anyway so we did.  There’s nothing wrong with photographing famous photographic subjects of course, but Jeff encouraged us to find our own unique view of the locations – under the conditions we found there – and to make the best of them.

Tuscan countryside near Montalcino, Italy
Tuscan countryside near Montalcino, Italy

Case in point is our visit to the Chapel of the Madonna di Vitaleta, which is in the Tuscan countryside near Vitaleta, Italy and is the location of the photo I posted previously and the location of the photos in this post.  It’s a spot that even I was familiar with, having found photos on a number of websites and possibly in a guidebook or two along the way.  It is a beautiful scene under just about any conditions, but at the time of our visit we faced a number of challenges.  First, being that it is a place famous for being famous, it attracts a lot of attention.  In the middle of the afternoon in June, there was no way to avoid people.  Second, it was 4:00 in the afternoon, not exactly an ideal time for photography, although the light in Tuscany was almost always ideal for some kind of photography!

Tuscan countryside near Montalcino, Italy. The sign says “Vietato Calpestare – Coltura In Alto” or “Forbidden to Walk – Farming in Progress”

I worked to try and come up with a couple of views that I felt would reflect my own take on the scene.  By taking the wide-angle approach I minimized the appearance of people and took advantage of the great sky and the surrounding landscape.  I also looked around for other scenes that were not as iconic but photo-worthy themselves.  I think I came up with a few good shots, including one of some actual people!  On the distance shots I could have cloned out most of the bodies, but to me that was part of the scene and I decided to leave them in.  Plus, the scenes looking elsewhere didn’t have any people in them!  If at some point I decide to make a “fine art” print I may take a few more liberties.

Tuscan countryside near Montalcino, Italy

We Visited the Vatican (But Didn’t See the Pope)

Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City

The highlight of our visit to Rome was two separate sessions in Vatican City.  The first, a daytime visit to the grounds of the Piazza San Pietro and St. Peter’s Basilica, was followed by an exclusive evening visit to the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel.

From Wikipedia: Designed principally by Donato Bramante, Michelangelo, Carlo Maderno and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, St. Peter’s is the most renowned work of Renaissance architecture and the largest church in the world. While it is neither the mother church of the Catholic Church nor the cathedral of the Diocese of Rome, St. Peter’s is regarded as one of the holiest Catholic shrines. It has been described as “holding a unique position in the Christian world” and as “the greatest of all churches of Christendom.”

St. Peter’s Basilica
St. Peter’s Basilica

Needless to say, St. Peter’s Basilica is an incredible place and one of the best-known churches in the world.  On top of that it contains a priceless collection of art & sculpture.  To be able to spend time in that space, admiring the architecture and the art, was truly awe-inspiring.  I took a lot of photos there, but they only capture the visual essence of the place, but not the spiritual feeling one gets just by being there.  I’m not a religious person, but I was inspired by the beauty and sheer magnificence of the place.

Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City
Swiss Guard in Vatican City
Swiss Guard in Vatican City
Swiss Guard in Vatican City

Outside of St. Peter’s, the grounds of the Piazza San Pietro, the statues and various buildings were quite a sight.  I’m guessing that Vatican City is likely one of the most secure locations in the world, likely even more so than the White House, but although the security was visible it was not intrusive.  The Swiss Guards appear to be ceremonial, but I got the impression that they would quickly become much more than guys in colorful uniforms if push came to shove.  There were a few Carabinieri and other police and military security personnel visible but mostly in inconspicuous locations.  I took a few photos but didn’t want to push my luck with guys carrying machine guns!

Vatican Museum
Vatican Museum
Vatican Museum
Vatican Museum

Tauck, the company that operated our tour, has a special arrangement with the Vatican to provide after-hours access to the Sistine Chapel.  For most tourists, a visit to ‘Cappella Sistina’ involves a trudge down a long, hot hallway with 10,000 of their closest friends, only be quickly herded through the chapel, with talking and photography forbidden.  Our group met up with two other Tauck groups and were escorted by our guides (and Vatican security) through the halls and numerous galleries of the Vatican Museum and ultimately into the Sistine Chapel proper, where we stayed for over 30 minutes, simply to observe and stand in awe of that place.  Our guides were able to narrate, and describe in detail, many of the pieces we observed in the museum, then provide a comprehensive explanation of both the ceiling and the walls of the Sistine Chapel.  We were still not permitted to take photographs, but there was nothing I could take that would come close to capturing the essence of the place.  After completing our visit, we were treated to a buffet dinner with wine on the grounds of the Vatican.  It was a simply indescribable experience!

Spiral staircase at the exit from the Vatican Museum
Spiral staircase at the exit from the Vatican Museum

Tree Family

“Tree Family” at a parking area near Linville Falls on the Blue Ridge Parkway

Kathy & I recently made a day trip up to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  We had hoped to get in a little hiking, but the weather turned out to be uncooperative.  We did manage to spend a little time between rain showers just sitting at a parking spot along the Linville River.  While we were there I spotted this grouping of birch trees that I thought would make a nice still life.  It looked like a family photo to me, so that’s where I came up with the title.

All Roads Lead to Rome?

Walking around Rome with a camera

Well, some of them anyway.  After our visit to Florence we made our way via another high-speed train to Rome, where we had a bit of a whirlwind tour.  Rome wasn’t built in a day, as they say, and you can’t see Rome in a day, or even two.  Rome is a huge place, spread out over a large geographic area, with historic buildings and ruins interspersed with more modern development.  We had essentially two days in Rome, which included two visits to the Vatican which I will post about separately, so to say that we skimmed the surface was an understatement!

Our visit to the Colosseum in Rome

Our visit began with a bus tour of the city, starting with lunch at a nice restaurant with a wine cellar that was actually in a catacomb, concluding at the Colosseum where we took a tour.  It’s hard to get a sense of the size of the Colosseum from photos, but suffice it to say that it would rival most stadia in our country.

Our visit to the Colosseum in Rome
Our visit to the Colosseum in Rome
Our visit to the Colosseum in Rome

On the second day we had free time between morning and evening sessions at the Vatican (upcoming post).  We spent that time on a self-guided walk past some of the major highlights, including lunch at a sidewalk café in Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps (yes, we climbed them!) and the Pantheon.  It was a hot walk and there were tons of people everywhere, but it was definitely worth the effort.  We didn’t push too deeply into the crowds, partly for safety and avoiding pickpockets, but also because it was fun just to see all of the people from a distance.  As I did in most of the places we visited, rather than trying to keep people out of my photos – an impossible task! – I made my photos to include the people to try and give a sense of the crowds that were everywhere.

The Piazza Navona in Rome
The Piazza Navona in Rome
The Piazza Navona in Rome
The Piazza Navona in Rome

Our tour ended on the following day, where we met up with the photography group with which we would spend a week in Tuscany.  I haven’t even started on those photos yet, so that will come even later.  I’m trying to post somewhat in order, mostly for my own benefit but also for the benefit of those who are following along on this adventure. Lots more words and pictures to come, thanks for hanging in with me!

Walking around Rome with a camera
The Pantheon
Walking around Rome with a camera
Walking around Rome with a camera
The Spanish Steps in Rome
Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II (Vittoriano). The Altare della Patria, also known as the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II or Il Vittoriano, is a monument built in honor of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a unified Italy

Our Visit to Florence

Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Academy Of Florence Art Gallery)

I would suppose that for most visitors, the focus in Florence is on art and architecture.  That was certainly the focus on our tour there.  And why not?  In a city that houses the most famous statue in the world, several of the most famous paintings in the world, and one of the most important architectural achievements in the world, a visit would not be complete without paying one’s respects to these things.

Aboard the train from Venice to Florence in Italy

Our tour group arrived in Florence in late morning, after taking the Alta Velocità (AV, or high speed,) train) from Venice.  That in itself was a wonder, with a comfortable, on-time and efficient train taking us at speeds up to 250km/hour through the Italian countryside to our destination.  We should be able to do half as well in this country, but I digress….

Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Academy Of Florence Art Gallery)
Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy
Botticelli’s “La Primavera” during our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” during our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

At our hotel in Florence, we were met by an art historian who essentially explained the Renaissance in about 45 minutes!  It was a great introduction to the things we would see while we were in Florence.  And see we did!  Visits to the Uffizi Gallery and the Academy of Florence Art Gallery (Galleria dell’ Accademia di Firenze) were definitely highlights, as were just walking around and absorbing the sights.  The Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) is magnificent, and although we chose not to climb the 463 steps to the top (would have taken too much time…yeah, that’s it 😉 ) we were able to admire its beauty from the ground.

Motor scooters everywhere in Florence
Guided walking tour of Florence, Italy
Walking around Florence Italy
Walking around Florence Italy

Walking around Florence was a bit confounding, as all of the streets around the cathedral tend to veer off into unexpected directions.  You wouldn’t think so from looking at a map, but Kathy & I got lost one night when we decided to take the long way back from dinner.  Of course we had very confidently left the hotel without a phone or a map!  We did eventually stumble our way back “home” but that was one of the days I recorded over 14,000 steps!  We made sure to have some kind of navigation aid with us from then on.  Oops.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence
Walking around Florence Italy in the evening
Walking around Florence Italy in the evening

I had recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Da Vinci, and the idea of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bernini, Brunelleschi and others walking around Florence at about the same time had me fascinated.  I even imagined the group of them holed up in a bar somewhere, drinking mead and talking about sports.  The reality though is that these geniuses were all in fierce competition, especially for Medici money.  Although I think they harbored a certain amount of respect for each other, I don’t know that they would have had each other on their Christmas card lists.  Hard to say for sure!

Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River in Florence

One of our days included a bus tour into the Tuscan countryside to visit and have lunch at one of the Antinori wineries.  It was set in an old monastery and was very interesting, not to mention delicious food and great Italian wines!  I’ll talk about that visit in a separate post.

“Rape of The Sabines” by Giambologna at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze
Guided walking tour of Florence, Italy

In addition to the planned highlights, we had several opportunities to explore the city on our own.  One of the places I had wanted to visit was the Galileo museum.  While it doesn’t contain a lot of actual Galileo artifacts, it does contain a display with one of his teeth and a finger.  Really!  Otherwise it is a very nice collection of artifacts from the 15th & 16th centuries, with very well-done exhibits of scientific instruments & personal items from the history of science.  Kathy had an opportunity to sample the famous leather shops and brought home some souvenirs, and of course I was able to have the famous Florentine T-bone steak I posted about previously!

Our visit to the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy
Galileo’s tooth and finger at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy

We saw only a small slice of Florence, and it is the kind of place where you could spend weeks or months and not see it all.  But we saw most of the highlights, and certainly saw enough to convince us that we could probably come back in the future and spend extended time there.  Hopefully with a map!

Florentine T-Bone aka Bistecca Alla Fiorentina

Bistecca alla fiorentina at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence

To paraphrase a T-shirt I saw recently, “Steak is the reason I’m not a vegetarian.” 🙂

One of the “must-do” things for me during our visit to Florence was to have the Florentine T-Bone.  According to the all-knowing Wikipedia:

“Bistecca alla fiorentina, or ‘beefsteak Florentine style’, consists of a T-bone traditionally sourced from either the Chianina or Maremmana breeds of cattle. A favorite of Tuscan cuisine, the steak is grilled over a wood or charcoal fire, seasoned with salt, sometimes with black pepper, and olive oil, applied immediately after the meat is retired from the heat. Thickly cut and very large, “Bistecca” are often shared between two or more persons, and traditionally served very rare, sometimes garnished with lemon wedges, if not accompanied by red wine, and accompanied by Tuscan beans as a side dish.”

Florentine steaks ready for cooking in Florence, Italy

We told our tour director that we wanted to have dinner at a place that is known for their Bistecca alla fiorentina, and he recommended Ristorante Buca Mario, which was a short walk from our hotel.  We went with friends who, while not looking for the B-A (big a$$) steak, were looking for a nice meal with top service and good wine at a locally-owned restaurant.

BEFORE – Bistecca alla fiorentina at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence
THE AFTERMATH – Bistecca alla fiorentina at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence

Mine was fortunately cut for a “single serving” which, as you can see from the photo, would likely feed a family of 4 (except my family, who loves steak!).  Italians put olive oil on everything, and mine was served the traditional way with Tuscan beans.  Of course we had red wine and finished our meal off with an outstanding tiramisu.  It’s not something I will likely get to do again, so I’m glad I did it right when I did it.

Osso buco (knuckle of veal ) florentine style (with beans in tomato and sage sauce) at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence

Randomness, Happenstance and (Sometimes) Luck

Sky and cloud reflections at the Bell Island Pier near Swan Quarter, North Carolina

Making a slight diversion from working on and posting about Italy photos….

Sky and cloud reflections at the Bell Island Pier near Swan Quarter, North Carolina

I first heard the term “stochastic photography” in a post by Ctein on The Online Photographer way back in 2010.  It’s sort of a refined version of pointing your camera at something, taking a boatload of pictures and hoping some of them come out in a way that is pleasing or that somehow meet the intention of what you were trying to capture.  As in “I’ll know it when I see it.”  I don’t always remember to use that technique, although I often recognize situations where it might be appropriate.  Sometimes I even have my camera with me.  While I don’t generally care to make my photographs “about the technique, ” sometimes the technique helps to define the photographs.  Post-visualization perhaps, rather than pre-visualization?

Sky and cloud reflections at the Bell Island Pier near Swan Quarter, North Carolina
Sky and cloud reflections at the Bell Island Pier near Swan Quarter, North Carolina

Kathy & I spent 4th of July week out in eastern NC, in New Bern and Belhaven.  One morning we stopped at the Bell Island Pier, which is a fishing pier within the Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge, near Swan Quarter, NC.  It was a beautiful day, with towering cumulus clouds and a deep blue sky.  I noticed the reflections of the sky in the water and decided to see what I could get.

Sky and cloud reflections at the Bell Island Pier near Swan Quarter, North Carolina

Over the course of about 4 minutes I fired off a little more than 100 shots.  It’s a little hard to tell which ones are “successful” but I’ve put together a little collection of a few that I liked.  The ones that “feel right” to me have a nice balance of light and dark, color and no color, with an interesting pattern.  I may decide later on that there are others I like or some that I don’t like, but that’s part of the fun!

Sky and cloud reflections at the Bell Island Pier near Swan Quarter, North Carolina