I have long been deeply absorbed by the idea of Venice: the perpetually floating and perhaps irremediably sinking city. In 2008, after a short visit, I returned to New York with a handful of mediocre images, frustrated with the experience of trying to work there. These very frustrations, however, helped me to move forward. What I saw during that trip—a small city overcrowded with tourists, a World Heritage Site slowly sinking because of its topography but also due to rising water levels exacerbated by climate change—dictated how I wanted to proceed. I felt it back then, and I am convinced today, that my photography of Venice had to have an element of purity only achievable by removing all traces of human activity. To accomplish that, without modern post-processing trickery, I adopted the use of timed long exposures. Depending on the subject, these can go from a few seconds per image to minutes or hours. The result of this technique is the almost magical disappearance of moving boats, and of people walking in front of my camera: the life of the city exposed undisturbed.
To document stone and water solely is by no means an attempt to introduce a post-apocalyptic view of Venice. Quite the contrary, it is an invitation to stop and see, to witness and realize that certain things need to be preserved and sometimes even protected from us.
During the first few years of my project, I photographed the structures that make Venice recognizable anywhere, those icons we have seen countless times in books and magazines and that are essential for any anthology of the city. But there was another side of the city that gained importance and became a priority as the years went by: The Venezia of the locals and what for many of them are its truest icons, those smaller objects and characteristics unique to the city and the lagoon: a wooden pylon in the water, clothes drying on hanging lines, a gondola rocking in a choppy canal, the fog.
This new focus afforded me the opportunity to get a closer look at some of the issues that Venice and Venetians face—forced relocation due to skyrocketing real estate prices, palazzi and private homes being purchased by foreign investors and kept shut for most of the year or turned into hotels, the absurd proliferation of enormous cruise ships sailing through and docking in the lagoon, and the lack of privacy for those who live in small areas like Burano. Becoming aware of these issues re-affirmed my conviction that my project had to go beyond the photography of beautiful places and become, in a way, a mirror that would show the city unobstructed, while also allowing us to see our own reflection and thus to become part of that same space.
A reflection of this kind would offer the possibility of stepping back to gain perspective and appreciate the whole landscape. It would allow us to decide whether leaving our footprint on Venice, whether paying the price of making it part of our own story or social media feeds, and treating it as an amusement park, is actually worth it.
I believe in tourism as a source of economic growth and development, but the consequences of riding this tide without regulations could be devastating. Cruise ships loaded with day-travelers have no place in the lagoon, not only because of the serious damage their wake causes to the fragile marine floor and the city’s foundations but because of the results of their daily human offloads. The effects that hundreds of people walking the narrowest of streets—littering and noise levels to name just a couple—taking self-portraits with their phones have on those who call these backdrops home can’t be overlooked. And we can’t forget the pressing issue of the constant flooding of Venice and how disheartening it is that projects meant to prevent its recurrence haven’t reached completion and remain on bureaucrats’ tables, when technologies to achieve this objective have been employed successfully in countries like England and the Netherlands.
Let us imagine for a moment a world without the Basilica of San Marco or the Bridge of Sighs; let us pretend for a minute that in order to see a gondola we would have to go to a museum where it would be kept behind glass like a relic, instead of riding the currents of the Grand Canal. I refuse to imagine that the bells of Santa Maria della Salute could stop chiming as the sun rises behind San Giorgio Maggiore.
I hope that these photographs, in their own humble way, ignite people’s desires to become more conscious of what is at stake here. I hope they make folks realize that Venice might no longer exist the way people have loved it for centuries if governments, corporations, citizens and tourists don’t accept and exercise responsibility. I can only hope that my photographs become mirrors reproducing the countless images I’ve seen through all these years, that you can see yourself inside of them and act.
2016 Awarded The Emily Harvey Foundation Residency in Venice, Italy.
2015 Published in the National Geographic book Getting Your Shot.
2011 "An Exchange with Sol Lewitt" Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.
2011 Exhibition organized for artists working at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
2011 The Great Pop-Up Art Sale at The Dumbo Arts Center (DAC)
2006 "Sow Generously" (Group show) Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City.
2003 "Portraits C/ON/Verge" (2 person exhibition) Globe Institute Gallery, New York City.
2003 "From North to South" (4 person exhibition) Globe Institute Gallery, New York City.
2002 "An Evening of Art and Music" (Group show) The Riskmetrics Group, New York City.
2001 Exhibition organized for artists working at The Museum of Modern Art, New York City.
Alejandro Merizalde, American (born in Quito, Ecuador) currently lives and works in New York City.