One Day That Summer: Pienza, Tuscany

Todd Ritondaro photography Pienza Tuscany 
To celebrate summer, in the course of the following months I will be collaborating with various photographers and photography collectors to bring you exclusive stories from behind the lens. Whether travel photography or pictures from the movie sets, One Day That Summer is an invitation to discovery, to open your mind and eyes, to live life like you stole it.
Italia. Even if I haven’t seen you in too long a time, you’re never far from my thoughts. Sure, with its magnificent scenery, historic monuments and architecture, and cultural heritage, Italy is arguably better stocked than any other country on the planet, so it’s easy to understand why I am probably not the only one who would say yes whenever a trip to Italy presented itself. But it’s more than that. We honeymooned in Italy and road tripped about half the country (without GPS and Google maps), turning off the beaten path, getting lost, opting for locations where Antonioni’s, Fellini’s and de Sica’s (I could have named an impressive number of other Italian artists here – read on and you’ll see) motherland is at her most tranquil and authentic. There are so many places I have yet to see, but Todd Ritondaro’s photograph above whisks me off to Tuscany, to its unique, quiet early morning light, to the smell of the evergreen cypress trees, to the terraced olive trees and ancient stone pathways; a beautiful reminder that the take-home from Toscana is the view and the experience of being there, and that it’s about time I plotted my return there. Va bene, I’m in!

Todd Ritondaro is a screenwriter, director and photographer living in California and in love with all things Italian. And I am sure this is just the first of the conversations Todd and I are going to have on the subjects of photography and film here on the site. For now, we’ve talked about the story behind this picture that keeps pulling me back to Italy, some of the hidden gems of Tuscany, and the Italian cinema, naturally.

“Usually there is an emotion that is triggered,
or a quality of light or a composition that inspires me,
and my goal is always to try and shoot what it feels like
rather than capturing a true-to-reality photo.
Although sometimes they overlap.”

What’s the story behind this photo?
Much like you, Italy is my absolute favorite country to visit (a close second being Kenya – editor’s note: we’ll talk about that later this summer). I was lucky enough to study abroad in Florence when I was in college and I take every chance to go back. I’ve been very lucky to go back three times over the last two years. I love speaking the language (although I’m far from fluent). I love the food, art, architecture, the people… did I say the food? Let’s face it, they have all the best stuff. I love all the small towns of Tuscany, and Pienza especially because it is one of the smaller ones.

The first time I visited Pienza, three summers ago now, I met this older man who has a small leather working shop in town and I bought a wallet from him (he does custom work, too) that I carry everywhere. I really wanted to stop by again on my trip there last fall, but when I got there, he had a sign on his window saying that he’d be out the next few days picking olives for his own olive oil. I just thought that was so cool.

I finally caught him when he was in his shop one very cold night on the way to dinner and bought a belt from him and had a wonderful conversation. He told me all about his olive oil and recommended some wineries to hit that were far off the tourists routes.

The photo you like I took one morning in Pienza walking around at dawn trying to catch the fog in the Val D’Orcia. After taking photos I had a cappuccino in the local café with a bunch of old men and workers getting ready for the day, and, for a moment, felt like a local.

What do you always take home from Tuscany?
The first thing I take home from each trip is a deeper appreciation of the people. They can have a tough exterior at first, but, in my experience, they are some of the warmest and most inspiring people you’ll ever meet. I’ve had so many wonderful conversations with locals, and I’m grateful that most of them let me ask tons of questions about what their lives are like, their favorite spots, where to find the best food, what they like to cook, and recommendations that are off the beaten path.

For example, the older gentleman I was mentioning above, who is a wealth of knowledge if you can get him talking.

There are a few food staples I love to bring back that also make great gifts: olive oil (best bought fresh in the fall), a small wheel of pecorino from this little shop on the road between Pienza and Montepulciano, and I like hunting for obscure amari. It’s always fun to hit up Italian grocery stores, too.

A few other favorite things: there is a great Legatoria, book binding shop, in Montepulciano, that makes beautiful sketchbooks and journals with hand made paper. And, in Florence, I always stock up on soaps and and a scent or two from Officina Profumo Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella.

I’ll say it again, Italy has the best stuff.

And of course, I always hope to make a few photographs that I’m happy with. But the experience of just being there, walking around, talking with people, and taking everything in is the best thing to bring back.

If Italy has all the best stuff, would you ever consider living in Italy?
I would absolutely live in Italy. I studied in Florence for a semester in college and felt like I was just getting started with exploring and learning. Granted, it was a pretty idyllic experience and far from the realities of moving there permanently. But I’d love to spend a lot more time there, if not move there.

You said ‘make’ a photograph. So, is it make, not take, a photograph? Do you wait for a good photo? Are there times when you simply witness the moment without shooting any picture?
Yes, I favor the ‘make a photo’ approach. It’s important for me to have a point of view and know what I’m trying to communicate. Usually there is an emotion that is triggered, or a quality of light or a composition that inspires me, and my goal is always to try and shoot what it feels like rather than capturing a true-to-reality photo. Although sometimes they overlap.

I used to make a shot list for myself, but I realized the best pictures came when I was just wandering and fully present letting things unfold. However, I do have a loose idea of what I’m after and do some research beforehand. I also use apps like Golden Hour and a few others, to increase the chances of getting some great light while still being open to what is in front of me.

I’m always torn between making pictures and witnessing the moment while traveling. The minute you put a camera in front of your face, or hold up a phone, it changes the experience. The photo above, as I was saying earlier, I took one morning in Pienza walking around at dawn trying to catch the fog in the Val D’Orcia. After taking photos, I had a cappuccino standing at the bar in the local café with some old men and construction workers getting ready for the day. For a moment, I thought about asking a few of them if I could take their picture. Instead, I decided that I’d rather enjoy the moment as it was, practice some Italian, and savor the coffee.

I think you have just captured one of the essences of Italy: ‘enjoy the moment’. What is the most important lesson that Italy has taught you?
At the risk of giving a cliched answer, the most important thing Italy has taught me is indeed to slow down and enjoy the little things. I love how there is such ceremony to everything Italians do and the attention to detail. Everything from the way they dress, to preparing food, to packaging something, to having a coffee in the morning at a café/bar. It’s all done with a meticulous elegance that makes even the smallest things better.

I’m also very inspired by Italian sartorial style and a lot of the modern culture.

And I never get tired of studying the art, history, and cinema of Italy. So much of what I’ve learned about lighting and composition has been directly from the Italian masters.

The Italian masters, would you name a few who have influenced you? How about a few favourite Italian movies?
I suppose all the usual suspects, Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphaelo, Caravaggio, Bernini, and many others. Most recently, Tintoretto and Pietro da Cortona. The way I like to study them is to take a small sketchbook to a museum and do little thumbnail tonal three value studies. By looking just at the tonal shapes, the darkest darks, the lightest lights, and where the midtones are, you can learn so much. I’m always looking for the graphic statement so to speak. It’s a great way to study paintings, photography, and film stills.

Some of my favorite Italian films I keep going back to are 8 1/2, L’Ecclise, La Notte, La Dolce Vita, Cinema Paradiso, Umberto D, Bicycle Thieves, I Vitelloni, and, recently, La grande bellezza.

The photo above was taken at dawn. What is your favorite moment of the day to shoot? Do you swear by the ‘golden hour’?
I do prefer the golden hour, both at dawn and dusk. Even though I hate getting up when it’s dark out, I’m always happy I did. The mornings usually have more atmosphere and there is a meditative quietness that I like, especially in touristy areas. In the evenings, there always feels like a longer, more gradual change in light and you have more of an opportunity to figure out where to be.

Does Italy have the best light?
Italy definitely has some of the best and most unique light. And it’s different depending on which part of the country you’re in. I love shooting in Italy because almost everywhere you point the camera, there is something beautiful. So much of it has to do with the buildings and landscape as well.

You are also a filmmaker. Which is, in your opinion, the most beautiful film shot in Italy?
There are so many beautiful Italian films, and films shot in Italy, that I love. If I had to pick one that has had the most influence on me, it would be The Talented Mr. Ripley. Anthony Minghella’s version of Italy is such a rich character unto itself in that film. Each shot is layered with atmosphere, texture, and color to play up the sensuousness of every frame. Plus, John Seale’s cinematography is absolutely beautiful. Minghella’s commentary on the DVD is a master class in filmmaking, too.

I also recently watched La grande bellezza (The Great Beauty), which was fresh, and touching, and stuck with me long after I watched it.

If you could be anywhere in the world right now (old or new location), preparing to make a photo, where would you want to be?
It’s a toss up. I really want to explore Calabria, in the south of Italy. I’ve never been, but my father’s side of the family is from there. The other place, which I have been, is Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya. For me, a morning game drive in the bush is heaven.
You can keep up with Todd’s photography and work here:
Instagram: @toddritondaro
Website: Todd Ritondaro

For more photographer interviews and stories, click here: One Day That Summer

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