How do you show your love for a city that’s already being loved to death?

This was the problem JoAnn Locktov faced when she decided to launch a publishing imprint for books about Venice several years ago. With 30 million tourists flocking to the fragile, floating city each year, the Italian hotspot has emerged as a case study about the dangers of overtourism. Watching as the diminishing quality of life pushed more and more permanent residents out of town, JoAnn realized that people needed to be reminded that Venice is not just an attraction, but a living, breathing, contemporary city.

That’s exactly what Bella Figura Publications aims to do. Refusing to present Venice as a fleeting bucket-list destination, the imprint’s mesmerizing “Dream of Venice” books capture the spirit of the city through the words and photographs of individuals who truly love it. The final installment of the trilogy, “Dream of Venice in Black and White,” features monochrome images from 56 different photographers, as well as an introduction from Venetian author Tiziano Scarpa, which outlines the effect that mass tourism has had on his life. JoAnn recently spoke with us about the books, the city, and the responsibility of creators in the age of overtourism.

To start out, can you talk a little bit about what inspired you to launch Bella Figura Publications in 2014? What was your vision for the imprint?

In 2014, I had an extensive library of books about Venice because I was on an endless quest to learn about this astonishing city. All of the guidebooks I owned used generic photography, and the photographic monographs, though interesting, still left me wanting more.

Then, I met a photographer named Charles Christopher, and I immediately responded to his images of the city. They captured a darker and more intimate version of Venice. He found beauty in her stained stones and dank crevices. I had already written two books for a traditional publisher, so the thought of starting an imprint seemed relatively natural (little did I know!). At this point, Venice was already drowning in tourism — cheap kiosks had popped up everywhere, cruise ships had increased in both number and size, and the resident population was decreasing at an alarming rate. I felt that if we could use our books to honor Venice as a living city with contemporary voices, we could magnify her relevancy and deepen our respect for her.

A young boy runs along a Venice street
Photo by Olinda Adeane

In addition to publishing the “Dream of Venice” series, you’ve written and spoken extensively about the Venetian experience. What is it about this city that strikes your passion?

My passion for Venice came as a complete surprise; it never occurred to me that a place on Earth could inspire such devotion. The texture, the light, the aqueous surroundings, the sheer unmitigated audacity that the city even exists — all of it has created an unbreakable visceral bond.

A gondolier leans against a lamppost on a Venice evening
Photo by Mriganka Kalita

Whether it’s through practical guidebooks, striking photo collections, or elegant literary efforts, Venice is a city that many creators have tried to capture. What does the “Dream of Venice” series add to that conversation?

My intention was to contribute in two ways, the first being physical. There is a wealth of gorgeous coffee table books on Venice, but they are large, heavy, and expensive. With “Dream of Venice,” I’ve retained that quality but reduced the size, allowing for a significantly lower price. Plus, I prefer books that we can easily hold because I think they lend themselves to actually being read.

A gondolier rows through a Venice canal
Photo by Lisa Katsiaris

The second contribution involved the content. Rather than looking to the past for the many oft-repeated pithy phrases about Venice, I sought out contemporary voices for each book. Whether they are authors, poets, architects, actors, or opera singers, Venice has touched their lives in a significant way. As a result, the writing is fresh and often surprising.

People tend to say that it’s impossible to take a bad photo in Venice. However, I believe Venice is actually one of the most challenging places to take an emotive photo that also presents a new frame of reference. I joke with the photographers I work with that if an image could easily be on a postcard, it will not go in our books. Just by witnessing a Venice beyond cliché, we have the capacity to shift the viewer’s perspective and add to the conversation.

The cover of "Dream of Venice in Black and White"
Photo by Lisa Katsiaris

The black-and-white Venice we see here is so quietly gorgeous, almost like a dreamscape. In the synopsis of the book, you write, “Without the distraction of color, her reality will be exposed.” What reality are you describing there?

The reality is the simple truth of gesture, light, and shadow. We don’t have the opulence of color to distract us; instead, we have the liminal purity of black and white. We focus on an image that connects us to this city, at this moment in time, within our generation. The irony is that even though we don’t see in black and white, this is the palette that is realistic, devoid of ostentation. You are seeing Venice without her mask of candy corn sunsets, sumptuous lapis lazuli brocades, or ochre patinas. I consider it a raw elegance.

A young boy looks at a lamppost on a Venice evening
Photo by Goran Pavletic

A portion of the proceeds from each of the three books is donated to a particular cause. For “Dream of Venice in Black and White,” you’ve chosen the Ikona Photo Gallery, founded by Živa Kraus. What inspired that decision?

In 2016, I attended the exhibit “Peggy Guggenheim in Photos” at the Ikona Gallery. Though I had been to the ghetto many times, I didn’t even know that the gallery existed. Its entrance is slightly obscured under a portico, and like so many things in Venice, it needs to be discovered. The exhibit was remarkable, and the gallery itself was warm and welcoming. Once I decided to publish the black-and-white photography book, I remembered my wonderful visit and proceeded to research the non-profit gallery and its owner, Živa Kraus. What I found was a woman dedicated to Venice and to the art of photography. Živa has been curating exhibitions and organizing international conferences and workshops for decades, and she has exhibited some of the most notable photographers of our time, when they were still unknown.

A restauranteur stands among his tables in Venice
Photo by Leslie Burgher

How did you approach the process of crafting a unifying thematic narrative for the book while working with so many different artists, each with their own distinct styles?

This was the greatest challenge! Several factors contributed to our approach. First, I felt that Venice gave us continuity of place, which was the first layer of narrative. My designer, Nick Phillips, was also instrumental in image placement, ensuring that photographs on adjacent pages had a relationship that contributed to the overall narrative. Then, the book was printed in four process colors, which, although complicated, produces the very richest blacks. It was also the skill of our pressman to develop a tonal vocabulary that brought cohesion to so many diverse images during the printing process.

A domed cathedral in Venice at night
Photo by Giulio Zanni

What other challenges did you face in sourcing images for the book?

I was surprised by the refusal of several professional photographers to be included in a book with amateurs. I edited solely based on the strength of the images — the career status of the photographers were not taken into consideration. This reluctance was especially interesting because the photograph that Gianni Berengo Gardin contributed to the book was considered by Henri Cartier-Bresson to be one of the most important photographs of the 20th century, even though Gianni took it when he was just an “amateur photographer.” Discovering talent is one of the most creative and joyous responsibilities I have as an editor, so I would never want to restrict myself.

Tourists in a Venetian gondola
Photo by George Fishman
A reflection of a Venice bell tower
Photo by Andy Parker

In the introduction, Tiziano Scarpa describes the increasingly dire issue of overtourism in Venice, saying that the images in the collection “show a relationship [between the city and its residents] that is vanishing, that has been interrupted. The real inhabitants of Venice are the tourists.” From your perspective as someone well-versed in the critical issues facing Venice, what should people know about overtourism in the city?

I would like people to know that we are loving Venice to death. I believe it is critical for tourists to understand that there are consequences to overtourism that diminish the quality of life for the residents of the city, and that is causing rapid depopulation. We must acknowledge that Venice is a living city with a (dwindling) resident population. So, when a tourist sits on a bridge to eat a slice of pizza, they are literally blocking the road from someone who may be trying to get home. When a tourist eats and sleeps on a cruise ship and visits Venice for just a few hours, their feet are wearing down the stones, but they are not contributing to the economic health of the city in any way. Not to mention, the ship they are on is causing high levels of pollution (Venice is the fourth-most polluted city in Italy), erosion of the lagoon sediment, and wave vibrations, which erode building foundations. And whether a tourist shops at the one-euro store, a kiosk on Piazza San Marco, or an international duty-free luxury brand at T Fondaco, their decision is contributing to the demise of Venetian artisanal heritage.

Tourists walk along a Venetian canal
Photo by Filippo Salvalaggio

Perhaps it seems like a good idea to stop by Venice for a couple of hours on your way to Rome. But chances are, you won’t stay long enough to eat at local restaurants, and you certainly won’t be spending the night in a hotel. Maybe all you will pay is a three-euro landing fee. Multiply the day-trippers by numbers that exceed the resident population, and you end up with masses of bodies clogging the narrow calli (alleyways) without contributing to the city at all.

Since the city government has done nothing to accept responsibility or mitigate the damage, the experience of visiting Venice has become untenable for nine months of the year. While the city can safely manage 12 million annual visitors a year, there are currently 30 million. And the plethora of corporate hotels and Airbnbs has destroyed a viable housing market for residents. We know that there has been a failure to communicate that Venice is a living city when tourists ask Venetians, “What time does Venice close?”

A young girl on a gondola in Venice
Photo by Cristina Marson

In what way does this book engage with that issue?

This book strives to inspire a deeper level of understanding and appreciation of the city. When we comprehend even a little bit about the historical ascendancy of Venice, it can engender respect. When we learn about a life that has been literally transformed, it may open our hearts to a place of empathy. When we read about a city’s struggle with mass tourism, it may revolutionize the way we think about travel.

Most English-language publishers use Anglo-Saxon writers, but for this book, I was committed to working with a Venetian author, giving us the rare opportunity to learn about Venice and tourism directly from a Venetian. It is my hope that the photographs will demonstrate what we are at risk of losing if there is not a radical intervention.

Nuns address a black cat in Venice
Photo by Benito Jimenez-Sauma

Overtourism is a problem in many places around the world right now, and I think that as creators of travel art and media, this is something we struggle with — how do we publish inspiring work about these locations without inherently contributing to the problem by furthering their perception as “destinations”? Is that something you contended with while working on this series?

Yes, this is a relentless struggle. I believe that if my books can inspire respect and compassion for this ancient city and her residents, I’ve accomplished my goal. When I received Tiziano’s introduction and read the final paragraph, I cried for three days.

For reference, it reads:

“So, what can you do about it? Come and fight alongside the few remaining Venetians? Perhaps a paradoxical way of helping this city would be not to come at all. Instead, stay at home and leaf through books of photos like this one, which inhabits the city delicately, making it bloom with a light caress made up of splendid images.” — Tiziano Scarpa

When I saw these words on the page, I experienced a full-blown existential crisis. Once I recovered, I decided that if Tiziano was brave enough to ask for the ultimate sacrifice, I must be brave enough to publish his words. Ultimately, he has reminded us that we can no longer pursue our own desires without the possibility of detrimental consequences.

I cannot control what anyone does. I realize that Venice is too beguiling for most people to stay away. But perhaps, through my books, they will aspire to travel with more “meaning, passion, and awareness,” as Zach Houghton recently encouraged in his provocative piece about traveling less.

An old man sits on a bench in Venice
Photo by Alain Hamon

Are you planning on publishing more “Dream of Venice” books? If not, what’s next for Bella Figura Publications?

The “Dream of Venice” trilogy is complete. I’m now exploring my hypothesis that Venice is a handmade city. I’m researching the cultural and historical context of Venetian artisans: the crafts and techniques that have survived for generations. For instance, there’s the matriarch of lace makers on the island of Burano, Emma Vidal, who is now 103. Marisa Convento is one of the last of the impiraresse (bead stringers), and Mario Berta Battiloro is the last family of gold beaters in Europe. Their stories need to be told. Even if they have been told before, I believe it is time for them to be told again, before they are lost forever.

Lovers kiss by a bridge in Venice
Photo by Alessandro Sarno

To purchase the “Dream of Venice” books or to learn more about JoAnn’s work, visit Bella Figura’s website.