Friday, July 18, 2008

Turning the Tables on Tourists

It must have been the morning of July 3, in the small city of Granada, when I was walking around the El-Hambra, this really pretty 14th C. royal city sitting on a hill. It's pretty much the only tourist attraction in Granada. Every guide book we came across mentioned the local phrase, "If you haven't seen El-Hambra, you haven't lived."

I learned a very important lesson that day: Just because some tour books insist that you go see something, and just because the local population will question the very terms of your existence if you don't visit this thing, doesn't mean that you should feel compelled to visit the in question thing.

Because I have a secret: El-Hambra is boring.

Sure it's pretty, but, after a certain point (which point, I suppose, came after two weeks in Europe, spent looking at museums and things built by kings), pretty architecture isn't all that interesting. Ooh, look! Another fountain! And, oh, over there, another fountain! I never would have expected that this courtyard would also have a fountain!

After a couple of hours walking around, trying to force myself into being interested in like these carvings they have in every door frame, I just stopped pretending. This place was boring and I knew it. We didn't have a tour guide, and we didn't have those little audio guides. I was just looking at stuff I didn't understand. And, as we all know, looking at stuff you don't understand just isn't all that interesting, e.g., Magic Eye books. I always hated those things. They just made me dizzy, and I could never see that stupid clown who was supposedly lurking in the background. El-Hambra didn't make me dizzy, but I also didn't see any clowns walking around there.

Now that I was no longer distracted by all the architecture, I could afford to think a little bit about what was going on around me. All these tourists were just walking around, taking pictures of everything and anything. But these pictures weren't of anything interesting. They were just taking pictures because, by gum, that's just what you did on vacation while visiting a tourist attraction. And I thought to myself, I thought:

If these tourists can take pictures of boring things, what's to stop me from taking pictures of them taking pictures of boring things? There might not be anything interesting about my pictures, but at least they'd be meta-.

I decided that the next time I find myself with time to kill--let's say maybe starting in mid-August if I'm unemployed--I'd go around to different tourist sites around New York, taking pictures of those picture-taking tourists. I would spin this off into its own blog, get linked to by all the important blogs, and make a few bucks on the royalty advance from the inevitable book deal. But, not surprisingly, the interwebs were way out in front of me. Like so, and like so.

I'm not entirely satisfied with any of these existing efforts, so maybe there is still time for me to work on this project. But for now, I'll post a wonderful piece of writing excerpted from Don DeLillo's novel White Noise.

Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the signs started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides -- pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.

"No one sees the barn," he said finally.

A long silence followed.

"Once you've seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn."

He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.

We're not here to capture an image, we're here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies."

There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.

"Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We've agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism."

Another silence ensued.

"They are taking pictures of taking pictures," he said.

He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.

"What was the barn like before it was photographed?" he said. "What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?"
Maybe one day I'll take pictures of taking pictures.


Toke-Dawg said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Toke-Dawg said...

No way! I actually have a whole album of tourists taking pictures in Florence. I got bored and sick of tourists and found it makes for pretty interesting photography, you know, in a certain self-conscious way. Plus it helped kill an hour waiting to get into the Uffizi.

Avi said...


joshua said...

You make a very compelling argument for never leaving the couch.

Also, magic eye books are awesome, I also used to think it was a giant prank similar to the "no soap radio" joke, which I'm still not convinced has no punch line, until that glorious day when I first beheld that elusive majestic clown.

And you can still take pictures and do a blog of people who take pictures and do a blog of people who take pictures.