You know this city. We all do. The red-roofed buildings floating atop a labyrinth of canals. The commanding gondoliers guiding their boats across the glimmering waters. The arched bridges extending across every gap, connecting every alley in an enchanting historic maze.
Matt Horspool thought he’d seen Venice, thought he knew it as well as anyone else. He’d scrolled through the countless Instagram photos of the haunting Bridges of Sighs, of the orderly gondolas lined up at the Riva Degli Schiavoni. He’d even visited years ago and checked off all of the top photo spots on his own. But when he returned this year, he wasn’t prepared for what was about to happen, for the unexpected phenomenon that would transform the well-known tourist trap into a brand new city, a brand new world, entirely.
When he woke up on his second morning there, he discovered that a thick fog had descended upon the floating metropolis. Never one to miss a photo opportunity, Matt grabbed his camera and hit the town early, before the streets grew too crowded. The result was a series of photos so mystical and so unexpected, they appear to be from another world. We sat down with Matt to learn more about this one-of-a-kind experience. Here’s what he had to say.
What brought you to Venice for this trip? What were you expecting to see and capture?
I was in Italy shooting for a tourism company, and the first stop of the tour was Venice. I had been there back in 2011 for a brief visit on my journey through Europe. I’d seen the main sites and walked the tourist trails but never got to explore the outer regions. I certainly didn’t have time to chase the perfect light for images.
For this trip, I’d marked some areas along the outskirts of the island that I wanted to explore, and I was hoping to capture the city at night when there would be far fewer people wandering the streets.
Describe your reaction when you awoke that morning to find the city completely shrouded in fog.
I’d set my alarm for 5:15 a.m., allowing me enough time to walk to the Ponte dell’Accademia and set up in a good position for sunrise. When traveling, I find myself continually checking weather apps, trying to plan for the perfect conditions. That morning, when I saw the symbol for fog, I literally jumped out of bed, got dressed, and raced out the door. It was one of those times I was grateful for having packed my bag the night before.
Now that you had this new environment to shoot in, how did you approach your exploration of the city? What were your new priorities?
After capturing some shots near where I was staying, I decided my best bet would be to stick with the plan and head to the Accademia to see what the view would be like. Having already walked the streets the previous two days, I could move around quite quickly and knew which spots I wanted to capture. I’d hoped to get some light trails from boats passing through the fog using a long-exposure feature on my camera. Unfortunately, it was so early that not enough boats came past.
How would you describe the experience of walking around this “new” city?
It was quite a surreal and ethereal environment to explore, and had I not gotten familiar with the city the day before, I would have felt a little intimidated. As anyone who has been to Venice knows, the streets and canals can be extremely confusing, even during the day. The sheer amount of people can be incredibly frustrating, not just for a photographer, but for any traveler, let alone the locals. Because my level of excitement was so high, I had to tell myself to focus on capturing the images correctly and not rushing between locations like I often do.
Preparation is important with any creative endeavor. But as this series illustrates, sometimes the most beautiful compositions are born from the moments we weren’t expecting. As a photographer, how do you balance those two approaches?
Anyone who knows me well knows that I spend weeks researching locations to explore and photograph. I drop multiple pins on digital offline maps and screenshot sunrise and sunset times and directions. At the very least, I like to have viewed at least one image from a location to give me a small idea of what to expect. Of course, throw weather into the mix, and you’re always learning on the fly.
That said, my friends often tell me to slow down. In the time it takes them to cover two spots, I’ve already covered four… it’s just how I work. My mind tends to race when I see new compositions in beautiful locations, so when presented with rare opportunities like this, I spend every ounce of my attention looking for and capturing a series of images that tell the perfect story.
Do you have a favorite shot from this series?
There are three images from this series that I knew would be my favorites as soon as they were captured.
The Ponte della Paglia is a bustling and well-photographed location that overlooks the canal running under the infamous Bridge of Sighs. Upon my arrival that morning, there were very few people, apart from a small number of locals unloading supply boats. It meant that I could set up my tripod in the most central position possible and look down the usually congested canal to see nothing but fog. The first few images I captured contained a bright-yellow light that cast a haze across the bridge. I was just about to pack up and leave when the light switched off, leaving a much moodier composition.
After capturing images in the central part of the city, I hopped on a ferry to the Giardini della Biennale, located at the far eastern end of Venice. I didn’t have any clue as to what was around there, but I was banking on finding only the locals walking the streets. No more than 50 meters from the ferry stop, I stumbled across this long walkway cutting through a park. The fog had created a movie-like scene, and I knew that it would look great if I could capture a person or an animal moving through it all. Luckily, I caught both.
The very last photo that I took that morning was in a quiet little backstreet almost as far east as you can walk in Venice. The buildings there were rather tall and somewhat different from those in the main sectors of the city. As I was about to leave, I came across this elderly couple walking out of their apartment, most likely heading to the store. There isn’t a lot to this image but, for some reason that I can’t nail down, it’s a personal favorite of mine.
What story do you think this series tells about Venice?
Venice is a well-documented city. It’s quite challenging to find an angle or a scene that is unique and evokes a renewed feeling of awe. I knew that shooting a series at night would represent a different side of the city, and the spontaneous fog only lent itself to boosting the mood and appeal. I hope that this series invigorates photographers to take another look at “classic” locations and attempt to document them in a way that inspires others.
Like what you see? Learn more about Matt and his photography here!