Adam Marelli: Exploring the Craftmanship behind Venetian Boatyards

New York City-based artist and photographer Adam Marelli explores the ancient crafts of building, maestros in their workshops, and designs handed down through generations. Whether he is photographing a master carpenter, dodging fish at a local market, or at the drafting table, he is in constant search of the threads which bind our cultures together.

When he noticed a shortage of design instruction geared towards photographers, he opened the doors of his studio, where he teaches the lost lessons of classical design. The success of his methods saw him named as a Leica Akademie Featured Photographer in New York City. He was also a lecturer at New York University, and continues to pursue projects at home and abroad. Invisible-Exports gallery represents his work in New York City. Recently, his “The Bear in the Canal” image from this portfolio won a 2014 International Photography Award Honorable Mention in the  Deeper Perspective category.

Q: How has your photography changed, if at all, from our last post featuring you in April of 2011?

A: In the last two years I have been bouncing all over the globe. It’s given me a much clearer sense of what I am up to and that life and our interactions are limited, so they should all be appreciated. Traveling makes you an eternal guest, not just in other people’s homes, but in the world overall.

Q: You work with photography, drawing, and sculpture — how do each of these play into the other or do you dive into them each with different purposes?

A: Certain bodies of work are best expressed in different mediums. I learned this through Michelangelo. No painting of St. Peter’s Basilica can give you the same feeling as standing in front of that building. It just does not translate.  Photographs, drawings, and sculptures all have their own, non-overlapping strengths. I decided to dedicate my life to being an artist and was not about to limit myself to one medium.

Q: Your observation that “photographs, drawings, and sculptures all have their own, non-overlapping strengths” is insightful and interesting. As an artist, craftsman, and photographer what do you think some of the particular strengths of photography are, both in itself and vis-à-vis other media?

A: When I was young, one of the things that got me interested in photography was the underwater work of Jacques Cousteau and his team. It made sense to take a camera in the ocean, because how can you paint a picture underwater? It’s absurd.

Photography possesses a portability that other arts do not have. Sculpture does not travel well, and while there were painters who did work on the road, I understand why polar explorers like Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton brought photographers and not painters or sculptors to Antarctica.

Q: What was the inspiration behind this project and what was the goal you were trying to achieve?

A: I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean. Even after thousands of years of exploration it remains mostly unknown, unexplored and undiscovered. It also captures, like no other landscape, the idea of the sublime … wonderfully powerful but terrifying at the same time. My goal was to uncover how building boats is the filter through which the boat builders view the world around them and how it shapes their world view.

Q: What camera and lenses did you shoot this project with?

A: I shot with a Leica M9, 50 mm f/2 Summicron, 90 mm f/2.5 Summarit, and a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux.

Q: Of the three Leica M lenses you shot with, which did you use most often when shooting this project, and when did you use the other two lenses?

A: Most of my work is done on a 50 mm Summicron. I wrote the lens off initially because it was the one that used to come with the Leica kit. Who wants the beginner lens? That was a huge mistake. Renoir once said, “The more you rely on good tools the more boring your sculpture will be.” Gear is a constant trap for photographers.

In the last ten years I’ve shot almost every lens in the lineup. I find the size of the 50 Summicron ideal and the image quality is second to none. It’s the most used piece of equipment in my bag.

The 35 mm and the 90 mm, I use for shots with multiple figures or architecture and portraits or details respectively.

Q: You mentioned that even after two years you did not consider yourself in with these wary Venetian master boat builders, but were “kindly tolerated.” How do you think this kind of insider/outsider relationship has affected the character of the images you were able to capture and create?

A: Everything in this series was shot in a squero (Venetian boatyard) that was started by Roberto Tramontin’s great-grandfather in 1884. My presence was lack luster at best and believe me, I’m not in when it comes to Venice. In fact, I don’t know if anyone who is not born in Venice is ever in.

The impact on the images is that I needed to rely on my construction background to understand what I am watching. There was no guided tour. Had I not been involved with custom fabrication for so many years, the work would not make much sense. As a builder there are things that I look for, which are never explained.

For example, gondolas are not built from drawings, like houses or cars. They are built using age old templates. The templates would make zero sense if you found it on the floor. It’s kind of like a construction riddle that was half designed to protect the proprietary secrets of the squero and the other half for design simplicity. The Venetian naval historian Gilberto Penzo even notes that the division of the gondola is all on the golden ratio, once again unifying the work of the art with the craftsmen. Everyone is speaking the same design language at the core.

Q: All the pictures in your Boatyard portfolio were shot with a Leica M9 and output in black-and-white. What is it about the black-and-white medium that you find especially compelling, and why do you think it was especially suitable for this particular project?

A: These scenes were almost monochromatic in person. There was hardly any color. If color makes sense in an image I will leave it in. If the color is completely random and adds little to the image I prefer to make them black-and-white. These images are like sketches, best done in charcoal or pencil. When I reach the stage of making a grand final painting there might be some color, but not yet.

Q: This fascinating image appears to be a triptych. The lighting is exquisite. Can you tell us something more about the technical details and how you achieved such gorgeous lighting?

A: The lighting for this shot is really quite simple. There is a doorway to the left … that’s it.  He is in the lighting sweet spot between too much and too little light. It’s all a matter of balance.

Michele Pulliero, the young man, was explaining his path from naval engineering school to the squero.  You might not expect that you were looking at a naval engineer. It’s a fascinating story we can’t get into here about how he decided to roll up his sleeves after school and dive into boat building. This was much in line with what I said it earlier. When you work/live in a world it allows your understanding to have greater depth.

Q: There are a number of images that reveal the hands-on craftsmanship of the very traditional craft and art of building a gondola in your portfolio, but none is more compelling than this image that embodies the concept of specialized knowledge, dedication, concentration, and love that goes into it. The lighting and composition are superb. Can you tell us something about this image, the identity of this man, and what you were thinking and feeling when you pressed the shutter release?

A: The man in the image is Roberto Tramontin, who is the namesake of the squero. He is a massive man in stature and presence. And underneath his rather tough personality, he is a generous guy with a great sense of humor.

It’s funny you ask about the moment I pressed the shutter because I took one of the participants of my Venice Verona Workshop on the shoots. I had explained that the difficulty of photographing craftsmen is that most work looks the same.

Whether they are a boat builder or a metal smith, they face forward, stare at the work in their hands and make pretty boring photos. It’s often the moment when they move to the next step that you can see them thinking ahead. It’s the closest we can get to viewing knowledge. You can’t actually see knowledge, you can only see it expressed. When craftsmen move from step to step there is this flash where they size things up or reveal an aha moment, that is so exciting to see because it captures something beyond reality, something less documentary and more philosophical.

Q: There is an enigmatic quality to this image, which appears to be a photograph of a painting. Was this just hanging in the boat builder’s workshop, what does it represent, and why did you include it in your portfolio? The subject has very intense and piercing eyes and the picture is evidently defaced to some extent. What is the significance of this image in the context of the portfolio, and what do you think it communicates to the viewer?

A: It’s been said that all art making is self-portraiture. This image was taken of the door to Tramontin’s squero. Someone pointed out that they thought the picture looked like me and maybe it does a bit. I wear a hat and a beard in the same fashion. I got a laugh out of the idea. I seem to have one of those faces where people always say, “Oh do you know who you look like?”

I decided to include it as a quiet signature. It’s a reminder that the photographer’s game is always the play between two dimensions and three dimensions. Just like Rene Magritte’s surrealist riddle “Ceci n’est pas une pipe;” it’s not really a pipe it’s just a picture of a pipe. But is our reaction any less intense?

Q: This image of a craftsman hammering a bolt into the prow of a gondola as another one holds it steady is fascinating because only hands, the tool, and a small piece of the gondola are visible, yet the whole story of traditional craftsmanship and loving cooperation is admirably revealed. Do you agree, and what does this image mean to you?

A: I find a kinship with Sandro in this image. He is a gondoliere and his boat, which was just restored, is over thirty years old. He loves that boat like it’s a child. We watched as he re-attached all of the decorative details that separate his boat from someone else’s.

As artists, craftsmen, or gondoliers we are all very particular, probably to a fault. We are highly attuned to details that most people would never care about. But when you are a person who derives pleasure and meaning out of the things that sit under your fingertips, the details matter.

Q: What are you planning on doing with these images?

A: The images are part of a larger body of work that is leading up to a sculpture series. This might be the most protracted intro to a body of sculpture ever, but it has allowed me to really understand how photography and sculpture can feed one another.

Q: How do you see your photography evolving over, say, the next three years, and do you have any plans to document other types of craftsmen in the near future?

A: I just got back from my second round of shooting a series I am working on called Lost Ceremony in Japan. Surprisingly, I find that Japanese and Italian craftsmen have a lot in common. I think it comes from the fact that the countries share a similar geography. Though Italy is not entirely cut off from Europe, it is surrounded by water on three sides and has developed very regional solutions that you do not find anywhere else the in the world. The gondola is a great example.

My work for the next few years will be to round out the craftsmen projects, exhibit it and make a book. I think I can safely say that my time in construction taught me how to build, but the last few years photographing craftsmen have given me an understanding of how to make things last.

Q: Since you are so adept at black-and-white, have you considered shooting with the Leica M Monochrom, or, for that matter with the latest Leica M?

A: All of the work in Japan has been shot on a Leica Monochrom and we will be exhibiting it at the Leica Store SoHo in New York City in May of 2014 in collaboration with Japan Handmade. It will be coordinated with some of the craftsmen so that people can see the work, hear the stories and meet the faces in the images. I expect it to be very exciting.

Thank you for your time, Adam!

- Leica Internet Team

Visit Adam Marelli’s workshops and website to learn more.