Site Seeing: Photographic Excursions in Tourism

Chicago Cultural Center

I looked for photographs of photographers at “Site Seeing: Photographic Excursions in Tourism” at the Chicago Cultural Center. Picture taking by other tourists is what I take pictures of, so I was first drawn to images that included cameras. In Les Krims’s untitled shot (Woman With Camera Head, c. 1975), for instance, a woman in a bathing suit poses with a giant model of a Kodak Instamatic camera in front of her head, as if it had mutated into a device like the one Krims was aiming at her.

While some of the shots here are straight tourist photos, whether professional or personal, many comment more on sightseeing than on the sights. Tseng Kwong Chi has photographed himself at tourist meccas around the world, always wearing sunglasses, a Mao suit he found in a Montreal thrift shop, and a fake photo ID labeled “Visitor,” as in L’Arc de Triomphe, Paris (1983). But it seems his unease about must-see monuments is nothing new. Victor Hugo in his 1837 poem about the recently finished structure hypothesized that its true significance would emerge only in 30 centuries, when it was in ruins.

“Tourists dislike tourists,” theorizes anthropologist Dean MacCannell in his 1976 book The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. We aim to capture authenticity with our cameras yet worry that we’re not authentic ourselves. And our cameras out us as nonnatives. “For moderns, reality and authenticity are thought to be elsewhere,” writes MacCannell. Shooting other sightseers instead of the sights expresses a humorous self-consciousness about tourism, perhaps rerouting some anxiety about it. I’d rather understand what I’m doing somewhere than try to understand what’s there.

This subset of reflexive shots–scattered among the 200 or so images here, nearly all of them from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film–is more illuminating than the show’s easy-viewing, visitor-friendly themes: “Tracings of a Wider World,” “A World Within Reach,” “And All I Got Was This Lousy . . .,” and “Armchair Traveler.” Daguerreotypes from the mid-19th century and vintage Kodak cameras are part of this “celebration of Americans’ favorite pastime,” and Eastman himself makes a cameo appearance in a snapshot taken in 1890 by his patent attorney, Frederick Church, aboard a mail steamer. Eastman is shown pointing a Kodak Number 2 camera back at Church.

Another shot of a photographer shooting a photographer is Garry Winogrand’s wry Cape Kennedy (1969), which depicts a crowd peering skyward during a NASA launch–and one woman turning her back on the spectacle to snap a picture of Winogrand. Martin Parr’s color print Pisa, Italy (1990) documents three unrelated tourists with the same idea: each pretends to prop up the tower in the background for the benefit of his or her photographer. From Parr’s ironic angle we don’t see the three of them setting up these gag shots, and the iconic tower isn’t aligned properly with any of the mugging tourists. Hands outstretched, leaning forward, they look like awkward practitioners of tai chi.

In Parr’s Weymouth, 1999, a woman wearing a red scarf and white sunglasses poses in the foreground of what could be a conventional “wish you were here” holiday snapshot. The joke is that Parr sets his focus on the background scene, a sunny beach and crowded boardwalk, so her head is in the way of the view, as if she were keen on filling the frame. The scenario gets switched around in Roger Minick’s comparably sarcastic Woman With Scarf at Inspiration Point, Yosemite National Park (1980): standing behind his subject, Minick centers the shot on her souvenir scarf, which bears a color reproduction of the same vista she’s regarding and has “Yosemite National Park” printed on it, furnishing a built-in caption.

“The tourist remains mystified as to his true motives,” MacCannell writes. But he ends up giving the tourist a lot of credit. When we travel and take snapshots, he argues, we join “a multibillion dollar research project designed, in part, around the same tasks I set myself: an ethnography of modernity.” Elliott Erwitt’s Group of People Standing in “Lost Persons Area,” Pasadena, California (1963) tells a slightly different story, however: even when tourists look like existential drifters, they can always feel at home with a camera.

When: Through 3/27: Mon-Thu 10 AM-7 PM, Fri 10 AM-6 PM, Sat 10 AM-5 PM, Sun 11 AM-5 PM

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

Info: 312-346-3278