On Tourist Photography
There is a lesson to be learned from the Mona Lisa.
It is without doubt the worst presented painting in the Louvre. It’s housed in the most unattractive room, with the worst lighting. There is a rope that keeps patrons from getting too close. A glass box protects it from atmosphere, UV light, attack from aliens, botulism, the flu, any type of deep appreciation.
And yet the crowds appear. It often feels like the most crowded space in Paris. Tourists, each of them with a cell phone, press toward the rope and then look away from the painting, raise their phone slightly above head level and snap away. The damn selfie a thousand, a hundred thousand times a day. It doesn’t matter how uncomfortable the room may be. The room is uncomfortable because the painting is popular. The ambient mood is keep moving. Don’t linger. Don’t engage.
However, the subject of the tourist selfie is not the Da Vinci. The subject is the photographer, documenting their presence in a famous place. Here is me in front of the Mona Lisa. Half an hour later, here is me in front of Notre Dame. Half an hour later, here is me in front of the Eiffel Tower. Half an hour later still, here is me over my bowl of authentic French onion soup. The subject is the selfish, vain, narcissistic me me me. It’s difficult to believe anyone sees where they are, sees anything other than their own reflection in various pools.
I have nothing against the self-portrait, nor do I have anything against documenting travels. And frankly, when traveling, I am not so sure the traveler is so far removed from Echo’s beloved. We all want to prove where we have been.
Beyond the technical aspects of light and speed, however, a photographer’s talent is an understanding of depth. Not just depth of field. What I mean is depth of idea. A wedding photographer may have a hundred clients and not know any of them particularly well, but that photographer knows the wedding ceremony more deeply than anyone who attends. Having seen a thousand, the understanding of need and nuance are deep and nourishing. A portrait photographer understands how light and shadow create emotion and evocation. A street photographer may never meet any of the people who wind up in the viewfinder, but knows the milieu of urban hustle. It’s all depth of idea. Depth of insight based on experience. Depth of knowing how that very small detail or shadow can make a cliché into something extraordinary and true.
It’s easy to belittle the cell phone selfie-takers from a position of experience and comfort if not talent. But what about when we are the tourist? What about when we find ourselves trapped in a schedule that’s not driven by aesthetics? What about the days we find ourselves in a place we’ve never been, without even the grace of an assignment to give us focus and purpose? What about when our real talent, an appreciation of depth, has no depth to rely upon?
The problem with the Mona Lisa is that it looks exactly like the Mona Lisa. We’ve seen that shot before. The Eiffel Tower looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower. In real life, the Sydney Opera House looks like every shopping mall kiosk calendar page we’ve seen. And that’s the problem with the selfie, too. Our faces look very much like our faces. There is nothing surprising there at all. Even the jet-lagged bags under our eyes are a cliché.
So what do we do? What can we offer that’s any better?
The advice is simple. Photograph your curiosity. Photograph your desire.
I tend to carry an unusual lens. More often than not, my walk-around lens is a Sigma 8-16mm wide angle because when I am traveling that’s how I see. Huge cityscape. Huge landscape. Huge sky. It’s not a very fast lens and yes, the edges are strange. But that’s my selfie. This is not the Eiffel Tower. This is the Eiffel Tower, to me.
My own curiosity does not focus on the single face or intimate moment. My own experience is flavored by how wide I can see. When I put the camera to my eye what I see is an image as informed by artistic self-awareness as light and shape. Yes, I carry other lenses too. Often my next choice is an 85mm prime. I see something close. I want to get it exact.
The good tourist photograph is a universe removed from the idiot selfie. Cell phone raised in front of something someone else has said is important is, at very best, a flat reflection. It’s all beautiful surface without depth or mystery.
The good tourist photograph is unique. It can be flawed in a hundred technical ways. What it gets right, however, is a glimpse of the soul.