Restoration Project: Venice Rediscovered

By Conor Risch

© Renato D'Agostin
Through his traditional, black-and-white film esthetic Renato D’Agostin felt he could find a different perspective on Venice. Click on the Photo Gallery link below to see more images from The Beautiful Cliché.

It takes a certain level of confidence for a photographer to approach an over-photographed subject and declare that he can do something different. Renato D’Agostin set out to find a different perspective of Venice, Italy, the famous lagoon city pictured in everything from postcards to lavish coffee table books.

A Venice native, D’Agostin felt that, recently, photographers “gave up [on Venice] because it’s overly photographed in every way.” (His favorite images of the city were made by photographers back in the 1950s and 1960s.) Using his high contrast, traditional black-and-white film esthetic, with which he often creates abstract and surreal imagery, D’Agostin succeeded in finding new views of well-trod subjects like the city’s famous gondoliers and St. Mark’s Square, and rediscovered some of the magic that had been rendered nearly banal through so many photographic representations.

The resulting images were recently published in a book, The Beautiful Cliché (Silvana Editoriale), and prints from the series are showing throughout this year in galleries in Venice, Madrid and Milan.

Working with his Leica M6 and M7, a Nikon F100 and Kodak Tri-X film, D’Agostin photographed architectural masterpieces framed, obscured or altered by shadows. Boats on the lagoon leave white, swirling stripes across a jet-black canvas of water. Gondoliers in their striped shirts appear like apparitions. And monuments loom over the silhouettes of citizens as they go about their days.

Many of the images in D’Agostin’s series were made using a 200mm lens so that he could create layers in the photographs utilizing elements in the fore-, middle- and background. Often D’Agostin would see a subject from afar, he explains, but when he got closer he would lose some of the interplay between the primary subject and other elements of the landscape. “That’s why I use the long lens,” he says.

D’Agostin printed all of the images in his darkroom in New York City, where he lives and has worked as a printer and assistant for Ralph Gibson for the past five years. As a teenager, D’Agostin began making and printing his own photographs. He became more serious about printing when he moved to Milan for art school, but he credits his work at the International Center of Photography and his collaboration with Gibson, where he concentrated on “changing the images in the darkroom,” as the greatest influence on his printmaking.

“[Gibson] definitely pushed me every day to print in the darkroom, and was pushing me to develop my own vision,” D’Agostin says. “He tells you to study all the rest, from music, paintings, culture and photography.”

When D’Agostin decided to pursue a project on Venice, he looked for an organization that could help support the work, and found Venetian Heritage, a non-profit with offices in New York City and Venice that’s dedicated to preserving the city’s artwork and cultural legacy. The organization hosted an exhibition of D’Agostin’s images in New York City this past December, and together with his galleries in Milan and Paris, underwrote the production of the book.

D’Agostin also enlisted support from an Italian bank, as well as two other Italian cultural institutions. He has used Sprint Systems of Photography chemicals in his darkroom for a number of years, and decided to get in touch with the company to present his project to them. They agreed to supply him with materials in exchange for credit in the book.

Proceeds from the sale of prints and the book during the New York City exhibition went to Venetian Heritage, but D’Agostin hopes that his contribution to the city isn’t just monetary.

“I rediscovered the magic side, the mystery, the feeling of Venice that I think got lost in time,” D’Agostin says. “We’ve been overwhelmed with the massive production of postcards and everything that describes a certain part of Venice… I hope that my project will get in touch with young people, who can approach Venice from a new point of view.”

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