Rob Walker | Essays

Pictures of the Familiar

From La Joconde, by Mika Matsuzaki and Benjamin Mako Hill

Years ago E and I visited San Pietro in Vincoli, where we jostled for position with a huge pack of fellow tourists to get a look-see at the artwork and relics. Our guided mob reached Michelangelo’s Moses, the main attraction, and the ensuing burst of camera flashes was startling and hilarious. It was as if, we decided, we tourists were actually paparazzi. (“Do you have a comment, Mr. Moses? What was Michelangelo like? And what about God? Over here Mr. Moses! Care to explain those horns, Mr. Moses?”) We didn't take any pictures, but the strange scene remains a fond memory.

Today, obviously, casual documentation of monuments and significant works is exponentially more commonplace, thanks in large part to ever-easier technology for picture-taking, and picture-spreading. The phenonenon can seem absurd, yet it has inspired, directly or indirectly, some very pleasing responses.

Following an earlier post here about what Google Image searches serve up in answer to queries such as “Mona Lisa,” a reader pointed out to me some work by Jason Salavon, such as the below piece, City (southbound). “In these large photographic prints,” Salavon’s site explains, “the entire Chicago Loop was reconstructed and virtually photographed from typical tourist vantage-points.”

City (southbound), by Jason Salavon.

This reminded me somewhat of images I’d seen earlier (although they were apparently made later than Salavon’s) by Corinne Vionnet. While Salavon's piece above seems to crush together a variety of tourist-friendly images into a sort of time-saving composite, Vionnet evidently collects lots of other images of much-photographed landmarks “via online searches,” and these are “digitally superimposed and stitched together,” according to this Telegraph review, multiplying the time spent on one view of one thing, rather than compressing.

From "Photo Opportunities," by Corinne Vionnet

I’d already been planning to bring up Vionnet’s images in my sporadic series about photography in the digital era. And (in a return to Mona Lisa), I want to connect her work to this project, from Mika Matsuzaki and Benjamin Mako Hill, made up of pictures of people taking pictures of that very famous painting.

From La Joconde, by Mika Matsuzaki and Benjamin Mako Hill

Why do we take pictures of iconic things that are already extensively documented? Surely nobody sees the Mona Lisa and says, “Boy, that’s some painting! I should take a picture of it!” Nobody can think such images will impress or surprise anyone. (“Look at this incredible bridge in San Francisco— it’s called the Golden Gate Bridge!”) Are they worried that they are going to forget what the Grand Canyon looks like?

 The camera is a device that “makes real what one is experiencing,” Susan Sontag argued, whether for “cosmopolitans accumulating photograph-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile,” or “lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara falls.”  Moreover: the “alliance … between photography and tourism” is at the heart of what she called “the predatory side of photography.” We’re still hunter-gatherers, under this theory, bagging images like sustenance.

More recently, I was randomly reminded of a passage from White Noise that seems relevant. It’s a somewhat famous bit about “The Most Photographed Barn In America,” and conveniently, a site called Check In Architecture has plucked that very excerpt and posted it right here. Basically the barn is known for being photographed, and as a result, people show up to photograph it. “Every photograph reinforces the aura,” one of DeLillo’s characters observes. The suggestion here is that we take pictures of much-photographed things precisely because they are much-photographed.

  “GPS and The End of the Road,” an essay by Ari N. Schulman, in the Spring 2011 edition of The New Atlantis, adds another wrinkle. The piece cites a number of other writers, most notably Walker Percy, complaining about the problem of pre-familiarity, whether via imagery or guidebook, with a place you’re supposed to see; the example of the Grand Canyon is offered. Schulman argues that GPS, in effect, exacerbates the underying problem: “In travel facilitated by ‘location awareness,’ we begin to encounter places not by attending to what they present to us, but by bringing our expectations to them, and demanding that they perform for us as advertised.” (That’s part of a passage cited with approval by Nicholas Carr on his Rough Type blog, which is where I learned of Schulman’s piece.)

What's interesting about that is the idea that easy-to-use picture-making devices are not the only technology encouraging us to document the familiar. And in addition to tools that guide us to the familar spot and make it simple to re-document it for the nth time, there are always new excuses to collect such imagery —  cataloging it in the new Facebook Timeline of our lives, for instance.

From "Photo Opportunities," by Corinne Vionnet

All of which makes me fantasize about a reversal of that passage in White Noise. Imagine a fictional world in which photographing an object actually took a physical toll on it. Perhaps if enough people captured images of the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the original thing itself would break down, fade, blur, become as indistict as a shaky memory, and finally disappear altogether. In that world, Sontag's speculation about the "predatory" nature of photography becomes far more convincing: If you encountered a blurry monument in real life, you would know it must be significant — it's been documented so much, it's hardly there anymore!

The urge to snap a picture would be, of course, irresistible.

From "Photo Opportunities," by Corinne Vionnet


Previously in this intermittent series:

Styles of Likeness

Monkey or Drone?

Ruscha Vs. Street View

The "Oh Yeah" Tool

Comments [13]

The images are strikingly like the research that came out last week from Berkeley, "Reconstructing visual experiences from brain activity evoked by natural movies." (http://boingboing.net/2011/09/23/brain-scans-reveal-our-mind-movies.html). Which feels like a clue.
D Brown

I like your final fantasy, Rob. Sounds like a Borges story—actually, there are some shades of "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" in all this.
Matt Gross

Matt, you're right about that for sure (and thanks).

D Brown: I'd seen that post hadn't actually watched the clip, and yeah, that's really interesting how similar the images are to Vionnet's work. And they reminded me of something else, not related to pictures of famous places at all, but this composite image of a year's worth of Vogue covers, maybe you've seen?

Rob Walker

Excellent post Rob! Reminds me of when I lived in Rome, scaffolds are generally erected while monuments are cleaned and many tourists would get so infuriated about it, during my studies in the Piazza Navona I would often here them shout: "they're messing up my picture!"

The work of photographer Sugimoto on architecture is an interesting reference to the durability of the icon, even when distorted, blurred...
thank you for the inspiring work of designobserver

danimontes: That's a great tip, nice work that I had not seen before. Thanks much.

Meanwhile, I randomly encountered another Salavon project of interest -- composites of Playboy centerfolds, again eerily similar to those brain-activity images references above.
Rob Walker

I believe a great photographer can take a picture of an iconic thing in a way an ametuer cannot. A special way that reveals something new about the icon. Maybe from a unique perspective, at night with a long exposure, or with a special lens filter. Not all pictures should be treated equally. When I take photographs, I attempt to find something hidden. Sort of like a treasure hunt. This requires kneeling, peeking, and/or climbing to find a hidden jem. And sometimes a little magic happens when I capture an image at just the right moment....freezing motion and time. This is what I call the decisive moment.

As a graphic designer I use my photos in projects and on a blog. I like to be able to claim my work. It gives me a sence of accomplishment and ownership. Like the images above, I can layer images to create something new and fresh. Maybe with the intent of motion, color, or line. I recently came across some striking images where an artist superimposed daytime and nighttime in one frame to create a fantasy world like something you'd see in starwars.

I think the idea that taking pictures of something would cause physical damage is very interesting. Imagine Facebook...it wouldnt even exist! No one would want their picture taken because it would degrade their physcial appearance. There would be no such thing as school photos. And you would actually have to travel to a monument to see it! Imagine the folklore, the descriptions of the pyramids or niagra falls. Without a photograph everything would be 10 times more amazing in person.

Although I understand taking a picture of something that thousands of people before me have taken is cliche, I like to think im the first.

I enjoyed this essay! Having been on the road frequently as of late, I've often wondered why I take pictures of things that have been photographed so often already. Why take a picture when I could just download a Flickr image? Part of this, I realized, is that people keep their photos on their cameras and phones. Rather than download them to their computer, they keep massive memory cards. These photos assist in storytelling. Just like a blog post is better with images, so is a story told over drinks. Seen from this lens, the motives feel less primal in the hunter gatherer sense and more primal in the cave painter sense. But I do like the idea of blurry monuments. You'll know you've found a rare gem when you can see it clearly.
An Xiao Mina

An Xiao Mina: I think this is a really interesting observation: "Just like a blog post is better with images, so is a story told over drinks."

FJ: I love that anecdote about the German car factory, and your point about sites that don't allow photography in general.

Mattrosenbach: You're right of course that even the most over-photographed thing can be captured in some new/interesting way.

Thanks all...
Rob Walker

this is awesome. a couple of years ago, I stumbled across collections of stock photography of both a) the crowd around the Mona Lisa, and 2) people taking pictures of the Mona Lisa. And I believe the artist Thomas Struth did a 'portrait' series of Michelangelo's David that only showed the people looking up at it.

The DeLillo and Sontag quotes, though, remind me of something I saw way back in 2002: a group of Chinese tourists taking their pictures at the "wrong," side of the Iwo Jima Memorial, presumably because though they figured/knew it was important, they had grown up outside the culture/education system in which the photo-based sculpture was transmitted.


"... Moreover: the “alliance … between photography and tourism” is at the heart of what she called “the predatory side of photography.” We’re still hunter-gatherers, under this theory, bagging images like sustenance."

This is too clever by at least half. People take pictures of e.g. the Mona Lisa to remind themselves and show others that they were there, in the actual presence of the famous thing. That's it.

I have wondered about this photo-of-famous reaction. I theorize that it is people have associated being happy with taking a picture. Think about a kid's birthday party. I see parents whip out the camera as kids tear into presents. However the picture is so far away because they are trying to get the whole scene in that you can't recognize anyone. It could be any birthday party. It is as if parents say "presents being opened is exciting, and I am happy = take picture"

Fair comments, livex and zukalous. I'm sure there's no single answer...

greg.org: That's a great point you're raising, and something I hadn't thought about. I wonder if there are many examples of physical monuments that specifically re-create photographs. The idea of photographing such a thing -- and doing so from the "right" angle -- is kind of funny.
Rob Walker

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