It wasn’t hard to spot the group at Florence’s airport. The airport is small and there was only one big Greyhound-sized coach loading people who carried lots of camera equipment.
The group looked like Americans on holiday and as I got closer, their American accents confirmed that. This was the group of amateur and professional photographers who were going with Drake Busath on his Italy workshop. We were headed to a farm called Pieve a Salti about an hour outside Sienna in the heart of Tuscany.
As I looked over the group I assumed that they had qualities and experience I lacked. They all seemed to have bigger and more expensive cameras than mine. They talked knowingly about photography and referenced equipment and techniques I knew nothing about. I assumed they were all professional photographers, probably studio owners or successful freelancers here to polish their skills and see a bit of Tuscany. And since they were chatting familiarly waiting for the stragglers to show up, I assumed they all knew each other. Drake introduced himself as people found the coach and welcomed them to Italy. We set out for for Pieve a Salti.
During the next five days I learned that all of my initial assumptions were wrong. First of all, there was a respectable representation of point-and-shooters in the group. There was talk about razzle-dazzle new lenses and cameras costing as much as my whole trip, but there was also discussion (and instruction later) about shutter speed, aperture, what shooting RAW meant, and how to get the most out of a small camera. I learned eventually that about half of the group were professionals. The rest were amateurs like me, ranging from “what does this button do” first timers to very experienced folks.
Most of the group didn’t know each other. One couple heard about the trip from friends and signed up to see Tuscany and get to know their new digital cameras. Another couple had a studio in Kansas. They were delighted to be out of the studio and more interested in distant hills and hills than in the photo ops.
Another couple, from California, was laden with photo equipment and clearly looking for the subject matter and the instruction necessary to take back memorable images of Italy.
As I relaxed into the camaraderie of the next five days, my feeling of being out of my league gave way to comfortable and enthusiastic exchanges. The group’s amiability and enthusiasm came at least in part from a their love of photography. And maybe part of the euphoria came from just being in Italy. Samuel Johnson said of London,” When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” My experience can easily transform that to, “When you’re tired of Italy, you’re tired of life.”
We arrived at Pieve a Salti and checked into our rooms in brick and tile buildings that once housed various farm functions.
About 7:30 that evening we boarded the coach for the mile ride to the restaurant in a restored farmhouse. We seated ourselves at long, family-style tables. The servers in the stone and wood-beamed building welcomed us, as did the aromas of food coming from the kitchen. Rapidly fading sunlight showed the Tuscan hills, green with spring. We continued the get-acquainted small talk that had begun on the coach. Where are you from? Have you been to Italy before? What do you do?
I suspect the last question seemed absurd to the professionals, but relevant to the rest of us. For in addition those who make livings as photographers, there were teachers, bankers, civil servants, doctors, homemakers retirees from a variety of professions, and a scattering of college students. There were also some non-photographer spouses who looked forward to cooking classes at the restaurant while the rest of us went on photo shoots during the next few days.
We fast-food Americans are used to quick meals, even if the meal is homemade. In Tuscany, however, a meal is an event, a social gathering where the consumption of the food is only a part of an evening of socializing, talking, and being together. All of that takes time. The dinner lasted well into the evening, due in part to the logistics of serving 35 people. Some of our fellow jet-lagged American photographers were not ready for Tuscan dining. But we learned that the major missing factor was knowledge of custom and tradition. Our job as tourists was to adjust, slow down, and enjoy.
We adjusted. Next morning at the breakfast buffet of cold cuts, various breads, fruit, yogurt, and cereals, we talked more with friends we met the night before, hoped we were better prepared for tonight’s dinner.
During the next three days we explored many Tuscan towns, Buonconvento, San Gimignano, Montepulciano, and others.
Buonconvento is a small town with all the picturesque quality one expects in Tuscany. First we wandered the streets feeling free and absorbing the light and shadows. After half an hour Drake led us to a blacksmith shop where he had arranged for us to shoot. The blacksmith himself was a handsome man whose years of experience showed in his face and hands. He deftly worked the iron pieces he banged on the anvil for our benefit and posed with his denim apron and his white hair for portraits both inside and outside the shop. The rows of tools on the benches inside the shop as well as those hung on the wall provided us with ample opportunity to practice our skills in finding patterns and in using the dramatic dim light.
From the blacksmith shop we went to a bakery where women kneaded bread and made cookies. We watched, overcome by the aroma of fresh baking. We photographed their smiles as they mixed and rolled out cookie dough. They invited us to try the cookies just out of the oven and we easily abandoned our cameras to devour the warm, buttery cookies straight from the oven.
We were beginning to understand the difference between “looking at” Italy and “seeing” Italy. We looked forward to San Gimignano, a popular hill-top town known for its many towers. The town itself is not large. Coaches parked in a lot outside the town and tourists walked into the city past an array of shops designed to lighten their pockets. Well-lit colorful window displays can provide great images and a surprising sense of a place. We had a special project for San Gimignano. One of Drake’s staff, Laura Bruschke, came along on the trip to help with instruction. However, in this case she served also as a model ready with a wedding dress for romantic shots of a bride in the Tuscan light.
Laura changed into the wedding dress in the rest room at the parking lot and emerged looking the part of the radiant bride complete with running shoes. She had kept on her running shoes since they wouldn’t be visible in the shots and it was an uphill walk on cobbled streets to the shooting site.
We entered the city gates and walked through center of town, a beautiful blond bride holding up the voluminous skirt of her wedding dress and 20 or so photographers following. But Laura was more of a draw than we had counted on. A dozen or so boys were also captivated by her beauty. They abandoned their soccer game and elbowed us out of the way as they tried to get close to her. She clung more tightly to the skirt and pressed on. Drake led her and the camera-ready photographers and the boys to a site where the light was right. She walked along a yellow wall striking poses and smiling and we clicked away. Most of the boys lost interest after while, but some remained on the edges of the group, unable to leave Laura. They were used to tourists in their town, but this was a tourist they would not soon forget.
We had daily critiques and I suspect that others were as apprehensive as I when the public viewed our images. Of course, I wanted to see my pictures on the big slide show screen, but felt like a 5th grader with a geography project, worried about what the teacher would say and wondering how my fellow students would view my efforts.
The critiques, of course, were kind and helpful. Either Drake or one of the other instructors praised something about the image and then usually made a suggestion as to how it might be better. “Try to get a sharp focus on just one bottle in that row, about in the middle, and then let the foreground and the background bottles be out of focus.” Or perhaps, “You might get more interesting effects if you shoot into the light instead of having the light always coming from behind.” We listened. Some took notes, and we went out the next day armed to do better.
Farms are full of wonderful shapes, animals everywhere, and barns with light streaming in through cracks. Drake had arranged a farm visit where we spent half an hour capturing these images. We then turned our cameras to the sheep and photographed them from every angle with all kinds of light, often with green hills looming behind. But the biggest draw was the ruddy-faced farmer smiling as he held a lamb for us. We placed him on a bench in the shade and captured his rough smiling face and his coarse farmer’s hands in the soft wool of the lamb.
It was not far to Montepulciano, another hilltop town, this one on a much narrower hilltop, famous for its wine. Most of us took the city bus up the winding street to the top of the Piazza Grande where the Palazzo Comunale looks much like a miniature version of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. This piazza was used in the movie “Under the Tuscan Sun” for the scene where young men were tossing flags high in the air.
We missed the late summer festival that involves teams of town men rolling casks of wine up the street to the Piazza Grande. But we found many inviting city doorways plus endless varieties of texture and light as well as views of the distant hills that all drew our cameras.
I sat in the plaza under an umbrella enjoying a cold drink with a fellow photographer, a grey-haired retiree from Salt Lake City. We fell into conversation with a woman at the next table and during the exchange my friend mentioned that he had been raised in Philadelphia. Her response was, “You must have been there with Ben Franklin.” My friend was speechless. How does one respond to a full-frontal insult from a stranger?
My immediate instinct was to toss back a tasteless but satisfying insult. Instead I grabbed my camera asked if I could take her picture. She said, “Go ahead,” and started arranging her hair. I took two or three shots, and then, rather than engage in more conversation took 15 or 20 more. I realized that the shade of the umbrella provided a wonderful, diffused light for a portrait. She posed as long as I clicked, smiling coyly, blinking her eyes, looking out at the horizon. When I finished, she gave me her e-mail and I promised to send her copies.
As I headed back to the coach parking lot I bought a basket of strawberries at an open-air shop. I washed them in one of the artesian spigots that lined the way. When I met the rest of the group at the coach stop, I passed the basket around. There were many comments about how sweet and refreshing the fruit was in the warm Tuscan afternoon. This was our last day together. Tomorrow we would go our separate ways, some to other parts of Italy and some home.
I didn’t take any pictures of my friends and the strawberries but their images are very clear in mind. That was Italy, the tired photographer friends, some still relentlessly clicking not wanting to let it go, the washed strawberries shiny and refreshing to the eye as well as the tongue, the subdued late-afternoon light in the shady grove where we waited to board the coach. I had been to Italy before, but I never had “seen” Italy. I knew I’d come back.