Life on the water

Posted July 24, 2009, at 6:50 p.m.

The drive to Lubec to interview two amazing photographers — Frank Van Riper and Judy Goodman, husband and wife — who have collaborated on “Serenissima, Venice in Winter,” a new book about Venice, was typical Down East: fog-shrouded and chilly, even on a July afternoon.

Van Riper is already famous for his captivating photographs in “Down East Maine/A World Apart,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. (You probably know this book, the one with the old woman rowing a dinghy on the cover.)

Goodman’s photographs hang in museums in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

In summer they live on Cobscook Bay in a beautiful house with weathered shingles and gardens filled with winding paths, little benches, a bowl for water, and birdhouses. Nearby, nestled in ferns, is a lovely guesthouse for their visitors.

Two cats waited by the door: one the color of vanilla ice cream and the other a whale gray with lime-green eyes. Lunch was pate and wafer-thin slices of smoked salmon and goat cheese and hearty bread and homemade potato salad, followed by lemon-soaked pound cake and tea.

They were beyond charming. They lingered at the lunch table, talking about Venice and newspapers and John Glenn and raising sons and what a joy granddaughters are. There was a quick tour of their home to show off their photographs of a church tent revival, wardens tagging a hibernating bear, and a beached whale on a foggy strip of coast. There was nearly some envious swooning because they have a real, honest-to-goodness diving suit hanging over their bed.

They call him Richard.

And eventually, the conversation returned to their book and the couple’s surprising conclusion that Venice, Italy, and Lubec, Maine, are really quite alike.

“It’s an exact parallel to Lubec,” Van Riper said and his wife nodded.

“Look out the window,” he said, sweeping his arm across his view of the bay. “The beauty, the fog, the history. It’s all the same.”

“This book is a collection of moments, human and universal moments,” he said.

Opening “Serenissima” and turning its stunning pages, image after image could almost be taken either in Maine or Italy: two women in winter coats buying their tiny dog red wine; a group of four women lingering over coffee at a restaurant table; two men conversing on a city street in front of an old brick wall.

There are children playing a ring-toss game at a street carnival, two men sitting on stools engrossed in a sidewalk chess game, a flower-dressed coffin followed by a priest, a young woman kissing her boyfriend on the forehead.

The 130-page art book took six visits to Venice to complete and is a true reflection of the city.

“Even people who have never been to Venice know of the gondolas and carnival. We ‘got off the bus,’ so to speak, to reflect the real city,” Van Riper said.

The photographs are all in black-and-white, all shot on film, not digital. “This is really all about the light,” Goodman said. “When you add color, you lose that. With black-and-white, you notice the content, not the color.”

But the visitor remained confused because in Lubec, she said, there are no canals — no men in tight striped shirts and tiny little hats singing gondola songs.

Lubec has sturdy, heavy, working fishing boats, lobster pots in piles by the front steps, coils of colored ropes in the dooryards.

What about the fog? Van Riper asked. Ah, yes, the fog is the same.

“Either place could be forgiven for claiming to have invented it,” Van Riper said. “In fact, when Judy and I first were looking for property to buy in Maine — moving farther and farther up the coast until we found something we could afford — one real estate agent started off with just two words to us: Washington County. It’s poor, the agent said. There’s not much in the way of services. And it’s always foggy.”

Even this week, after a month of solid rain and fog, Van Riper remains smitten. “All I can tell you is that it’s beautiful,” he said. “Just like Venice.”

What about the 45th Parallel? he asked. Oh, that’s right. Lubec and Venice are both quite near the 45th Parallel.

And the food, he added. “In Lubec, the pizza — nearly always made by hand in the small mom-and-pop places that dominate here, can be surprisingly good. Just like Venice.

“There is no escaping that both Venice and Lubec offer simply off-the-charts fresh seafood for you to prepare at home,” he said. “In Venice, it’s just a short walk from our rented apartment to La Pescaria — the open-air fish market where the eels are so fresh they still are wriggling. Lubec’s wares may be less dramatic — more of the farm-raised salmon, fresh scallops, clams and lobster variety — but the freshness is every bit as impressive as in Venice.”

Van Riper contended that both Venice and Lubec are walking places, inexorably tied to the sea. Both are comparatively quiet: Lubec for the fact that it is hardly a tourist mecca (“For which we, though perhaps not the locals, are eternally grateful.”); Venice because the modern noises of car engines and squealing brakes simply do not exist in a city built on water. “And neither place features any nightlife to speak of,” he added.

And what about the history of both places, rooted as they are in water? he asked.

The visitor thought of Lubec’s working waterfront, the deeply ingrained culture of earning a living from the sea. OK, clearly both places have watery souls.

But when he begins to get even more detailed, the parallels begin to appear more as opposites.

“Truth to tell, the parallels may not jump immediately to mind,” Van Riper said. “Take coffee, for example. A mundane thing, to be sure, but to someone like me — an ex-reporter who pumps the stuff into his veins each day before he can work — a good cup of joe is molto importante, as we say on the Grand Canal.”

But, he said, don’t look for a first-rate cup of the stuff in Lubec, “Though, in fairness, things are improving.”

In Venice, Van Riper maintained, even the most mundane single espresso is a work if art.

As for something more complicated, like a latte, Van Riper is exasperated. “The nearest latte in my section of Down East Washington County is in Machias, 45 minutes away by car,” he said. “And during the rare times I’ve been desperate enough to ask for one there, the pained expression on the face of the poor woman behind the counter suggests I have asked her to paint my house.”

Another opposite, according to Van Riper: “Lubec is a tiny, fairly anonymous town where every day is casual Friday, while Venice has been world-renowned for centuries as a hub of style and beauty.”

“So you’d be forgiven to think it a bit of stretch to draw parallels between the easternmost town in the U.S. — a tiny fishing village whose closest neighbor is Campobello, New Brunswick — and Venice, Italy, arguably the most beautiful, most romantic, city in the world.”

But, he is quick to parry, the love that he and his wife feel for both places says volumes.

“Whereas Lubec seems to have an inferiority complex compared to the rest of the state, especially the moneyed confines of Bar Harbor, Camden and Northeast Harbor, Venice has what only can be called a superiority complex to the rest of Italy. But for the friendships Judy and I have made in both places — and for the pictures we have made in each — it has been worth it.”

“Serenissima, Venice in Winter” is published by Hudson Hills Press, photographs by Frank Van Riper and Judith Goodman, text by Frank Van Riper. Van Riper and Goodman will host a lecture and book signing at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 2, at the Lubec Memorial Library. A portion of the proceeds will go to the library.

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