In the first half of Summertime, Katherine Hepburn experiences Venice through the viewfinder of her movie camera, changing lenses, popping in new film as the previous reel runs out.  Ah, the age-old tourist stereotype.

This is not to say that I don’t snap pictures myself when traveling.  I’m the type who waits for the shot to be perfect once all the damn people move out of the way. But, as Susan Sontag argues in On Photography, taking pictures don’t merely capture an event — it becomes an event in and of itself.   “Most tourists,” she writes, “feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter.”  So it’s no surprise that when Hepburn finally forgets her camera, she falls in love with an Italian silver fox.

So, yes, I have a pictures of the winged lion above St. Mark’s Square, as well as ones of green canal water gnawing away the bottom of wooden doors or stenciled piece of graffiti agitprop.  But I haven’t looked at those pictures since I took them almost two years ago.  Maybe Sontag is onto something:  photographs are slices of life cut free from context.  Photographs are memento mori.

I never saw someone throw rubbish into the water like Hepburn does, but I did  see the empty plastic cups in the street, the remnant of revelry.  And if, for Hepburn, the streets were filled with Italian love songs sung from every rooftop, I instead was treated to ABBA’s “The Winner Takes it All” blaring out of a window as I made my way through winding alleyways.

Still, two years later on, I struggle to remember everything that happened in Venice. I remember crossing a bridge several times, in both directions, because I had gotten turned around.  I remember having prosciutto e melone for lunch (though this could have been any random day in Italy).  And I remember the brightness of the sun on the lagoon surface, black boats darting back and forth like water striders.

The photographs I have don’t help me remember my trip more vividly.  Aside from the must-see checklist (The Bridge of Sighs, The Doge’s Palace, the Rialto Bridge), most of the pictures I have are of people — men, to be specific.  The pictures are somewhat artless and less surreptitious that I would like:  a tanned gentleman adjusting the ropes on his boat; a souvenir hawker listening to his iPod while waiting for customers to approach; an artist with a sketch pad on his lap, a pencil dangling from his fingers, waiting for the proper inspiration to strike.  In some, the subject looks straight at me, as if to say, Hey, what the hell are you doing?

But for me, these images become, as Sontag writes, “invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy.”  (A boatman off to see his lover; an artist in the agonizing pangs of creation.)  If images bring the imagination to life, can one describe them as memento vivere?  I click through the pictures and see two policemen, frozen in place mid-conversation, white slashes of belts across the chests, endlessly circling the arcades of St. Mark’s Square.  The policemen don’t move, but, just outside of the frame, the pigeons cooing on the ground rise in unison, a feathered curtain, and the sky overhead flutters away.

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