For most, to sightsee is to photograph. Inspired by images we have seen of exotic locations, we embark on treasure hunts to find renowned monuments of grandeur. Framing sites of mass tourism in our viewfinders, we create photographic souvenirs that are integral to the touristic experience. These products, coined “photograph-trophies”[i] by Susan Sontag, separate our leisurely pleasures from the real everyday experiences of work and life, validating that we had fun on vacation and were in foreign locales where the Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, or the Burj Khalifa exist.
Photo Opportunities evolved following Swiss/French artist Corinne Vionnet’s 2005 Italian holiday. While photographing the Leaning Tower of Pisa, she observed two phenomena. Tourists took pictures of the monument from distinctly similar vantage points, and the numerous souvenir shops scattered around the tower were absent from her pre-visualization of the environment, suggesting that she had glorified her expectation of the holiday destination.
Upon her return home, Vionnet conducted online keyword searches of vernacular images of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. She found a remarkable consistency in iterations of the touristic gaze. Her research deduced that we make pictures of pictures: idealized facsimiles of famed images. In most photographs, the extraneous and less picturesque surroundings such as souvenir shops are cropped out of view. This led her to examine how we select the optimum spot to photograph landmarks, and how we choose to edit that which is superfluous to our constructed reality of leisure. Where do we stand at the gateway to the Taj Mahal to render its architectural façade in perfect symmetry? Where do we stand where we can frame all four American presidents in equal scale at Mount Rushmore? Perhaps we instinctively choose where and how to photograph known monuments. Are we socially conditioned to take pictures we have seen before – romanticized images of iconic sites that are popularized through movies, television, postcards, and the Internet?
The artist researched statistics on popular tourist destinations, and the subsequent images of these sites propagated by both the tourist industry and photo-sharing web sites. Culling thousands of snapshots, she developed the series Photo Opportunities: the artist’s commentary on mass tourism and its relationship to digital culture. Working with several hundred photographs of a single monument, Vionnet weaves together small sections of the found images to create each layered, ethereal structure. Each image contains pieces from approximately one hundred appropriated photographs.
While the images that form the infrastructure of Vionnet’s compositions certify our expeditions, they are the mediated versions of the real, influenced by the countless packaged and branded products featuring ‘staged’ presentations of reality, snapped at certified vantage points. One of the world’s leading industries, the tourist trade markets destinations by disseminating aesthetically pleasing ambassadorial images. This propels touristic desire and in turn leads to the generation of similar vernacular snapshots that are distributed via global connectivity. In many cases, the propagation of these visual icons contributes to the ‘Bilbao Effect’ (in reference to Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim in the once faltering industrial city), generating opportunities for employment, foreign exchange, and financial growth.
Yet, the photographs of these tourist micro economies are the mediated versions of the actual localized experience and are in part responsible for skewed foreign perceptions of national distinctiveness and cultural identity.[ii] While such images often promote the enterprise of being the object of foreign gaze, they feature global microcosms in unity and division. There is little integration between local and foreign populations at tourist destinations, and the number of tourists generally eclipses that of the local community. What was once an adventure in ‘foreignness’, as Fred Ritchin describes, has become routine. Lacking in intimacy and improvisation, the predictable touristic experience generates more staged photographic clichés.[iii] While this mythology is the normative construction of our cultural traditions, its relative photographic originality stands a chance to be revived.
Not so long ago, people would often organize their holiday photographs into travelogues. These chronologically curated albums served as devices for storytelling and memory recollection, depicting travelers’ accounts of their journeys. The travelogue evolved with the advent of affordable cameras, mass air travel and corresponding packaged holiday excursions. The ‘traveler’ transitioned to the ‘tourist’[iv], and similar holiday snapshots began to multiply. Today, the travelogue is less likely to be an album found in our homes than it is an online directory of digital images. When placed in the public realm, the travel souvenirs become anonymous products of tourism, searchable by the keywords ascribed to them by their makers. These virtual meeting points, as Vionnet describes where her digital sourced snapshots intersect, form the layers of the artist’s alternative picture album.
The digital revolution has created new opportunities for photographic discovery. Corinne Vionnet is one of an increasing number of artists concerned with how the persistence of formally repeating photographic compositions constructs our cultural and historical awareness.[v] Serial internet-based projects like Penelope Umbrico’s Suns from Flickr and Meggan Gould’s Google Averages draw related conclusions about the complexity of photographic imagination. Other projects like Jason Salavon’s Every Playboy Centerfold and Idris Khan’s every…Bernd and Hilla Becher… series sculpt impressionistic images by averaging like compositions. For Vionnet, the multiplicity of specific vernacular travel snapshots online led her to explore the power photography has in directing human experiences, and how travel snapshots serve as organizational placeholders for more personalized recollections.
Each photograph in Vionnet’s Photo Opportunities espouses the “touristic gaze”,[vi] its distorted visual referent functions as a device for memory transport by funneling many experiences into one familiar locale. She constructs a blurrily layered perspectival variance of each monument, questioning the unstable desire to possess and freeze our fleeting holidays via a tangible record.[vii] Landmarks like the Parthenon, the Giza Pyramids, and le Mont-St-Michel float gently in a dream-like haze of blue sky. Likewise, other tourists appear as apparitional beings, allowing the viewer to insert himself into the photograph and envisage an exclusive encounter with the scenery. This is likely a subversive attempt to foster the touristic imagination; the romanticized experience is concurrently collective and privatized.
For many, our happiness hinges on our leisure time. As Sontag so aptly described, these leisurely excursions are often a scripted succession of photographic mediations with the real – disruptions which remove us from directly engaging with the environment. The construction and review of the contemporary travelogue allows us to draw out the nostalgic process of memory reflection, where we may elongate and idealize our experiences over time. When shared online, these ‘photograph-trophies’ assimilate into the vast directories of indexical images. Corinne Vionnet’s Photo Opportunities theorizes about how we consume and contribute to these patterns in visual culture, providing a nuanced perspective that may perhaps be inspiration for your next photo opportunity.
Corinne Vionnet and Madeline Yale (2011) Photo Opportunities. Heidelberg: Kehrer Verlag.
[i] Sontag, S. 1977. On Photography. New York: Picador, p. 9.
[ii] Wilson, R. and W. Dissanayake (eds). 2005 (3rd edition). Local: Cultural Production and the Transnational Imaginary. Durham: Duke University Press, p 7-9.
[iii] Ritchin, F. 2009. After Photography. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., p. 53-7.
[v] Rexler, L. 2009. The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. New York: Aperture, p. 185-7.
[vi] Urry, J. 2002. The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies London: Sage.
[vii] Tisseron, S. 2008. Le mystère de la chambre claire: Photographie et inconscient. Paris: Flammarion.