BUONCONVENTO, ITALY — It's not the kind of thing you're going to find out about in any guidebook on Italy. Trust me. I've read lots of them, and not one of them mentions a little Tuscan village named Buonconvento - which also just happens to be one of the most photographed places in Italy.
It's not because the village is so charming - it isn't, really. For charm, go to the nearby ancient, hillside village of Montalcino, or head 20 miles up the two-lane road for the medieval splendors of Siena. No, Buonconvento is actually something of an accidental tourist spot, a place that every summer draws some of the world's best photographers - and their students.
I found the place through a tiny ad in the back of Cond Nast Traveler, which offered the tantalizing prospect of a "learning" vacation - spending two weeks on a private Tuscan estate, studying color photography with the well-known landscape photographer Joel Meyerowitz, whose books include "Cape Light" (Bullfinch).
Although I've been shooting pictures for years, I'm no professional, and I had never taken any special courses. So I called the New York number in the ad, to find out if amateurs were welcome.
They were. In fact, this workshop was geared for nonprofessionals of all levels of experience. (Well, almost all levels; participants were expected to have some working knowledge of how to use a camera beyond the just-point-and-shoot stage.)
There was still space available in the class, which would hold no more than 18 students, I was told. So, it was simply a matter of sending in my check for $2,450, which covered accommodations on the estate (in renovated farmhouses), meals, and instruction. I was responsible for bringing color slide film, and getting myself to Buonconvento.
Easy drive to class
I opted to rent a car at the airport in Rome, rather than trying to finagle my way to central Tuscany on a bus or train. It's an easy three-hour drive, plus I wanted the freedom to explore on my own during the workshop.
And so I found myself in Buonconvento one early June day - or, to be precise - on the grounds of Castelnuovo Tancredi, a centuries-old working estate just a few miles from the village. For the next two weeks this would be my home - sleeping in a simply furnished room; eating out-of-doors meals prepared by local cooks; learning about photography in daily sessions with Mr. Meyerowitz; and best of all, exploring life in this gentle part of Tuscany in a way that never would have been possible if I had breezed through on my own.
I soon learned that Castelnuovo Tancredi, a 1,000-acre property, complete with vineyards and fields of grain, has become something of a secret mecca for photographers. Discovered originally by somebody scouting out a place to hold a summer session for the Maine Photographic Workshop, the property soon became home to Meyerowitz's June class, as well as an Italian-based program in July and August. The latter, Toscana Photographic Workshop, brings in top American photographers, including staff members of National Geographic, for one-week sessions taught in English.
It is easy to understand what draws them all. The Tuscan light is rich and mellow - a photographer's dream. The land is endlessly varying - from rolling, moonscape fields of tilled earth waiting to be planted, to fields of wild, red poppies and cultivated sunflowers with huge yellow heads bowing under the weight of their seeds. Then, of course, there are the people - unfailingly patient, it seems, with prowling photographers and their students - and apparently never uncomfortable with being the subject of scores of photographs.
I fell in love with all of it. And I learned how to do more than take pretty pictures. I learned to look through the lens of the camera in a way that made me pay much closer attention to the details of my surroundings: to light and pattern, to gesture and movement. I learned to engage people - to appreciate them - in a manner that made the camera a way to connect with others and not simply "snap" their picture.
I looked through windows and doors and patiently watched to see the pictures they made. I even became so taken with the changing view out one of the bathroom windows in one of the estate's farmhouses, that I wound up with dozens of pictures, taken at all hours of the day, documenting changes in the light, the sky, and the activity of people at work.
I spent hours watching and listening, adapting to the rhythm of a life where families still come first, where the land's presence is so palpable that it becomes a welcome, though silent, companion.
The structure of Meyerowitz's workshop allowed for hours of individual and group exploration of Buonconvento and surrounding villages that are in guidebooks - places like Bagno Vignoni, a medieval spa town with a pool built by the Medicis; Pienza, with its grand square redesigned in Renaissance times by Pope Pius II; and Sant' Antimo, an ancient abbey still tended by Augustinian monks. The architecturally stunning cities of Siena and San Gimi- gnano are also within a short drive.
It is all amazing sightseeing, but I found it meant much more to me with daily photographic workshops to guide my eye. Meyerowitz was a generous teacher, always available to students and always calling attention to some detail of our surroundings. Small group sessions included landscape photography and street photography - literally, learning to work on the street, to be comfortable and observant enough to shoot candid pictures of people and the human details of daily life.
In addition to almost nightly slide shows of the class's work (thanks to a local photography place that turned film around with 24 hours), each student had a 45-minute one-on-one evaluation session, in which Meyerowitz pointed out strengths and weaknesses.
Back for more
Two weeks, as it turned out, wasn't enough for me. I went back to Castelnuovo Tancredi in August, to continue shooting pictures and to observe the classes held by Toscana Photographic Workshops, which are $1,250 per week including accommodations, meals, and classes.
The pace was different - more intense because the learning is packed into one short week. But the instruction was far more varied, with three teachers per week and only three or four students working with each. And unlike Meyerowitz's workshop, which used only color slides, these sessions offer instruction in color, black-and-white, and darkroom techniques. There are also beginner classes.
During the time I was there, teachers included David Alan Harvey, a National Geographic staff photographer; Jim Goldberg, author of "Raised by Wolves," a multimedia portrait of teenagers who live on the streets; and Jim Megargee, a photographer and darkroom expert who prints work for some of New York's top photographers, including Annie Leibovitz.
Although I didn't actually take a class in August, I saw enough to know that I'll be heading back this year for one or two sessions. In fact, I have been planning my return trip almost since the day I left last summer.
It's true. I'm hooked. On the photography. On the land. Most of all, on the people.
* For more information: Joel Meyerowitz, Tuscany Color Photography Workshop, 20 Bethune St. #3D, New York, NY 10014, phone (212) 366-0601 or e-mail:
email@example.com; Toscana Photographic Workshops, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org