This past week I was blessed with an invitation to photograph a Santa Margarita Catholic High School choir on its nine-day, three city performance tour in Italy. I say "a" Santa Margarita choir intentionally; these performers were a collection of singers from a variety of ensembles at the school who, prior to the rehearsal period, had never performed together. And while we all anticipated a wonderful experience in the three principal cities we visited, Rome, Florence, and Venice, I (for one) left Italy at the end of the tour with profound gratitude for the opportunity to experience not only the sights, tastes, and rich history of Italy, but more importantly, the talent and growth of this amazing group of kids, led by Director Francisco Calvo.
But since this is a photography blog, we need to move to that subject.... My goals for this assignment were three-fold: first, to capture the performances in the incredible locations on the tour; second, to provide some additional context for the trip along the lines of traditional travel photography; and third, to produce sufficiently good work to populate the pages of a book. Going in, I anticipated two big challenges. First was the expectation of low light in the churches where the group would perform. This would require high ISOs, wide-open apertures, and slow shutter speeds. Without the encumbrance (and benefit) of a monopod, it was going to be a hand-holding high-wire act. Second, the need to be a part of the group, on the group's schedule, meant that photographing these magical locations would usually occur during the least attractive periods of the day - high midday sun, stark contrasts, and large crowds. No deserted early morning streets. No early evening, soft light. Not much time to contemplate and compose thoughtful, creative images. For the most part, this was going to be "run and gun" street shooting.
Our first stop was Rome. On our first full day of the tour, the group was scheduled to sing the Mass at St. Peter's Basillica. Now think about that for a moment. First-ever public performance for this choir. First day after transcontinental travel. Performing after a cattle-pen tour of the crowded Vatican Museums in 90+ degree temp, ending in a flash-mob rendition of "Locus Iste" in the Sistine Chapel (a story for another place and time!). Performing at the very pinnacle of the Catholic faith, and the pressure of that opportunity. And the result? To my eyes and ears, perfection. Right there and then, I realized we were in for a magical week.
Here are a few views of St. Peter's.
After dinner, we paused in front of St. Peter's Square to capture a night view of the Basillica and the illuminated windows of the Pope's residence.
The next day, we visited ancient Rome, including the Colosseum and the Roman Fora. For me, the most impressive sight was the Pantheon.
At the end of the day, the choir performed its first concert at Sant' Agnese in Agone, a beautiful round church topped by a marvelous domed ceiling.
Prior to each performance, the choir did a brief placement and sound check. Except for St. Peter's, each of these sound checks were done prior to the choir changing into their concert wardrobe. With light levels relatively higher, and no restriction on location, I decided to use these opportunities for some individual portraits of the performers. The goal and challenge here was to hit that moment where facial expression was meaningful, and background elements (including other performers) would add to the image of the principal subject.
Taking a group shot at these remarkable places of worship became not so much a portrait of the group, but rather having the group simply be an element of the larger scene itself.
St. Agnese was the first performance where we saw posters advertising our presence. As the tour progressed, the number of visitors in the audience grew.
Our next stop was Orvieto, a beautiful hilltop town in Umbria. The Duomo there was off limits to photography, but a climb to the top of the Torre del Moro gave me sweeping views of the Umbrian countryside. More compelling for me, though, was this view of the rooftops of Orvieto.
Next stop, Florence and a concert at the beautiful Cenacolo di Santa Croce. Below, a scene in front of the Uffizi Galleries, where costumed "performers" pose for tourists in hopes of a tip.
The downstream backside of the Ponte Vecchio. The "interior" of this famous bridge across the River Arno is a collection of jewelry stores.
In the Cenacolo.
In the audience for awhile during our concert was another high school choir from Minnesota, who stopped in prior to their own performance at another location. Later that evening, we found this same choir in our restaurant. They expressed appreciation for our performance, and treated us to a song from their repertoire. I thought for a moment that we'd have a "Battle of the Choirs", but we were ready to eat...
Our next and final stop was the incredible city of Venice, where the choir performed at the Chiesa (church) di San Moise, just off St. Mark's Square. Prior to the concert, we walked the streets of Venice, which gave me my best closeups, including this mask and some beautiful scallops at an open-air fish market.
Several of us experienced "gondola gridlock".
Sound check at San Moise:
For the seniors on the choir, this would be their final performance as members of Santa Margarita Catholic High School. Two members, Alex and Kelly, asked me if I could take their picture together for the last time. I told them, "I just did".
Just prior to the beginning of the performance at San Moise, I looked at the floor of the church, and saw a real problem in the making. A shaft of blazing light from the rear window of the church was making its way from the audience and approaching the front of the church; it would hit the right side of the choir during the performance, making a shot of the entire group under one light condition impossible. You can see the problem below. In technical terms, if the exposure for the front of the church was f/2.8, this shaft of nuclear light was f/22. Shooting a live performance under these conditions is simply not possible.
When faced with a circumstance like this, you take what the light gives you. Forget the big shot and expose for the light. You might get something good, even from sunlight that is essentially coming upward, bounced from the floor.
As conditions deteriorated, and the performers on the right side of the choir were hit by blinding sun and couldn't even see the Director, I settled in for some tight portraits. These kids are absolutely nuked by the sun; but when properly exposed, their faces become angelic and their cohorts are underexposed to blackness.
At the conclusion of the performance, this shaft of light had migrated upwards, leaving the group in beautiful light for a final image of their final performance together.
We left San Moise and made our way back to St. Mark's Square and our boat ride back to the hotel. A passing squall during the afternoon had cleared the air of the humid conditions, leaving the waterfront bathed in the early evening light that I had hoped for all week.
A final dinner together, topped off by the presentation of a cake.
I'm still culling, sorting, and editing images for posting on the website and populating the book I've promised. But I couldn't wait til then to post these initial impressions while my thoughts (though jet-lagged) are still relatively fresh.
My thanks, once again, to Francisco Calvo and Santa Margarita Catholic High School for the opportunity to experience and record this marvelous choir together, and to Michael Whang, Ray and Alissa Medina, our tour guide Francesca Scasso, our bus driver Emilio, and the parents of these amazing kids who traveled together with us. I'll never, ever forget this.