I’ve never been very good at sightseeing. “Abysmal” is the actual word that springs to mind. When I see a sign pointing toward a tourist destination, my tendency is to turn and head the opposite direction. Traveling to Tokyo, I’ll more likely seek out the seediest back alley in Shinjuku, than visit the Imperial Palace. If you hear I’m in London, don’t look for me at the Tower — I’ll be throwing back a pint in a Soho pub. It’s not that I have anything against tourist sites, scenic vistas, or must-see destinations — it’s just that, for me, tourism is about the people and the culture, and not so much about ‘things.’
Mind you, I’m not impervious to the charms of a spectacular landscape — quite the contrary. In fact, British Columbia’s magnificent scenery weighed heavily in my decision to immigrate to Canada. In the ten years I’ve lived in Vancouver, I haven’t once become the slightest bit blasé about its topography. Not a day passes when I don’t stand at my condo window and gaze in admiration at my view of English Bay, The Strait of Georgia, and the rugged mountains along the North Shore, Sunshine Coast, and Vancouver Island. I am invigorated by natural beauty, and am in awe of pounding surf, snow-capped mountains, and the violent ramifications of earth’s ongoing upheavals.
Given the fact that I love photography, and that I’ve just written an unabashed declaration of love to the beauty of landscapes, you would rationally conclude that I also love landscape photography — after all, if A = B and B = C then, by the transitive property of geometry, A must equal C, right?
The truth of the matter is that landscape photographs bore me silly. I’m not talking about just my landscape photographs — I’m talking about all landscape photographs. This statement is probably even more shocking if you knew that, before the latest economic collapse, I was happily employed by the Ministry of Environment as the photographer for BC Parks — a job that required traveling around British Columbia photographing all this beauty. Frankly, it was the best job I ever had.
So how can such a dichotomy exist? Before all you passionate landscape photographers click this site’s contact link to send me nasty emails, let me attempt an explanation:
In nature, a beautiful landscape is immobile. It may contain some kind of dynamic element — like a waterfall or a shifting pattern of light and shadow — but the overall scene is not going anywhere anytime soon. You are free to stand and admire it for as long as you like. You can hear the wind rustle through the leaves, or the chatter of a stream as it rushes past. You can smell the air — sweet with the fragrance of flowers, or tangy like the salty sea. Your face feels the heat of the sun or the spray of the surf. A beautiful landscape engages all the senses, and reveals itself completely to anyone who chooses to stand and experience it for long enough. A photograph of that same landscape, by contrast, engages only one of the senses. This is why landscape photographers use the highest calibre equipment — in order to engender a sense of awe that’s even vaguely commensurate with the scene itself, they must extract every drop of visible information possible. But, ultimately, a landscape photograph is always less appealing than experiencing a landscape in person.
This is one of the reasons why, in general, I choose to photograph ‘small’ things; ‘simple’ things; ‘people’ things. I’m drawn to the little slices of life that surround us, and the photographers who document them. Unlike a scenic vista, which reaches out, grabs us, and demands our attention, life’s passing parade often goes unnoticed — except by photographers like Frank, Winogrand, Erwitt, Moriyama, and others. When you look at simple ‘street’ photos, you see more in the photo than you saw in real life, not less. My last post, “How to Ignore How-To Guides,” contains a couple of prime photographic examples — On the streets, you might never notice the man who stands beneath a giant clock, yet feels the need to check his watch for the time. You might not see the woman standing in a doorway smoking two cigarettes at once. To me, these tiny flashes of life are every bit as beautiful as a Yosemite landscape, but it’s a beauty that can only be truly absorbed and appreciated through photography.
This is why I say that “landscape photographs bore me.” At best, they might compel me to visit a place and witness the view for myself. Or they might have some sort of technical merit that intrigues me as a photographer. But, in general, landscape photos neither demand nor benefit from repeat viewing. Everything is spelled out. ‘Street’ photography, on the other hand, is open ended — it appears to tell a story but, in reality, it’s the viewer who writes the tale. ‘Street’ shooting invites interpretation. It asks questions. It creates multiple moods and conflicting emotional responses. Landscape photography doesn’t do this.
Which brings me back (hopefully) to the topic at hand: my trouble with vacation photography.
I’m no etymologist, but personal experience would suggest that the word “vacation” derives from two sources — the words “vacate” and “shun.” Vacate means to leave, or to give up a place or position. Shun means to avoid or ignore something. For me, “vacation” means “to ignore my usual photographic inclinations, and to give up taking the kind of pictures I like to take — resorting to generic landscapes and banal ‘I was here’ photos.”
For the last couple weeks, I’ve been on one of those “vacate shuns” — driving up and down the Oregon coast. For my money, the Oregon coast is endowed with the most beautiful scenery in the continental United States. It’s the type of trip where you drive from scenic overlook to scenic overlook — each offering a magnificent view and another chance to heal your wounded spirit. But, as a photographer, it’s also the type of trip that triggers the panic alarm — because, at each destination, I’m compelled to take a photo. And not just any photo — but a landscape photo. Even worse, the scene I photograph at each stop is the exact same scene that’s been photographed a hundred million times by a hundred million travellers before me. What’s the point in this? The panic alarm rings louder.
Prior to leaving Vancouver, I meekly suggested that my wife pack her little Canon point-and-shoot so she could take all the ‘pretty’ pictures. It didn’t matter that image quality would be lousy — one week after returning, no one ever looks at their vacation photos again. My motive, of course, was to give myself the freedom to photograph any of those delicious “slice of life” moments — the type I’d likely miss whilst fiddling with postcard shots.
No dice. The lady’s too smart — she gently reminded me that I was the photographer in the family and, by having me take the photos, she’d be free to feel the sea mist, smell the marine air, and watch the wildlife with her 10x Pentax binoculars. I flashed, briefly but enviously, on Robert Frank — and how, in his travels through America in the 1950’s, he stopped at places like the Grand Canyon, yet never bothered to expose even a single frame at such magnificent sites. Instead, he photographed jukeboxes, flags, and the disconnect between America’s self-image and its actual self. Lucky son of a gun.
In reality, it wouldn’t have mattered if my wife had taken the tourist shots — late October on the Oregon coast is well past the summer tourism season. We had 363 miles of scenic coastline all to ourselves. To help dampen my photographic panic alarm, I chose black & white for all the ‘pretty’ shots — deciding to work with my strengths, rather than against them. I also took the “I was here” shots by surrounding my wife with her environment, rather than having her pose in front of it. Hence (as shown earlier), I’ve shot her waving from the top of the Astoria Column, and exploring tide pools at Devil’s Churn.
Fortunately, my wife’s proclivities tend toward the offbeat, and she is every bit as adept at finding tourism spots as I am at avoiding them — so any vacation we take is bound to lead us to a few curious destinations that are far-removed from the beaten path. On this trip, besides finding a remote covered bridge some 10 miles off the highway, and paying homage to some of the world’s largest hairballs (from a pig’s stomach), she also managed to navigate us to a monk’s cemetery (shown above) and a taxidermy museum that featured, amongst other oddities, an 8-legged calf.
I did try, on occasion, to sneak a few candid shots of other travellers. But, as I mentioned, human beings were few and far between. At Hug Point (the second photo in this post), I saw a family off in the distance — insignificant, yet harmonious with the tranquil sea, paisley-esque sky, sunlit mountains, sea caves, and hidden waterfalls. While walking the sand at Cannon Beach, a few silhouetted figures crossed my path. But they, too, seemed one with their surroundings. On this vacation, incongruity did not exist and irony was nothing more than a word in a dictionary. My usual photo modus operandi was rendered null and void.
And now, just like every traveller since the dawn of photography, I’ve returned home with a bunch of dull photos that I was compelled to take, but will probably never look at again. Yet, inexplicably, like a billion travellers before me, I also feel compelled to bore others with these photos. And so, I present a few of them here. I suppose, if I can’t photograph human nature, I might as well exhibit a bit of it myself.
©2010 grEGORy simpson
ABOUT THESE PHOTOS: “Cannon Beach from Ecola State Park,” “Rush Hour at Hug Point” and “Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach” were shot with a Leica M9 digital and a v4 35mm f/2 Summicron lens. “The Obligatory Wave From the Top of the Tower Shot,” “Premature Entry” and “Eight Legs, One Calf” were photographed with a Leica M9 digital and a 28mm f/2 Summicron lens. “Tide Pool Exploration at Devil’s Churn” was shot with a Leica M9 digital and a Voigtländer 15mm f/4.5 Super Wide Heliar lens.
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