Reconsidering Amateur Photography

The Aspirational Tourist Photographer

Jonas Larsen

Introduction

Much of the literature on tourist photography is highbrow, derogatory and incomplete. Most importantly, it neglects the apirations and endeavours that tourists put into their photography. In this article I draw a different portrait of tourist photography by drawing upon practice and performance theory and ethnographic research. Performance metaphors – stage, script, director, acting and so on – can help us write illuminating and dynamic accounts of tourist photography as an embodied and creative performance, ‘full of life’, that produces memories, social relations and places. Thus, the snapshot metaphor, and its undertones of headlong shooting, is dismissed on the grounds that it prevents us from registering the physicality, temporality and creativity of much photography. I begin by outlining the intimate relationship between tourism and photography and how much literature has seen this coupling as alienating and causing superficial appreciation of places. Then I turn to performative metaphors and ethnographic studies to highlight the case of the aspirational tourist photographer [1].

 Modern twins

Tourism has been inseparably tied up with the development and popularization of cameras and photographs. The invention of photography occurred simultaneously with the birth of modern tourism and the development of each cannot be separated from the other; they became modern twins. Yet it was first in the late 1880s with Kodak’s launching of user-friendly, lightweight and cheap Brownie cameras that photography actually undertaken by tourists themselves was born. Kodak realised that it required an expert to enrol people without prior photographic skills. They targeted the new middle-class family and tourism as the agents and spaces where ‘Kodaking’ could produce ‘Kodak moments’. They, in effect, invented tourist photography through developing a new system, assembling together a novel set of material and social relations that re-organised photography as a straightforward, user-friendly practice that could become part of an emerging tourist habitus. As Kodak’s slogans said: ‘You Press the Button, We Do the Rest’ and ‘Vacation Time is Kodak time’. From that time onwards, much tourism became in effect a search for the photogenic; sometimes it seems that tourist travel is a strategy for the accumulation of photographs [1].

For some tourism scholars, this epitomises the alienating nature of tourism. Photography is condemned for its refusal of experience, being too visual, brief, image driven and technological. Multifaceted places are consumed as lightweight, pre-arranged photo-scenes, and experiencing is akin to seeing; seeing reduced to glancing; and picturing to clicking. Tourists who let their cameras have free rein are ridiculed and are taken to be superficial in their consumption of places. Martin Parr’s photographic collection Small Worlds reveals and exposes such a denigration of the camera-wearing tourist. [2] In much academic literature, tourist photography is seen as a wasteland of pre-programmed shooting where tourists are not so much framing as already framed by an economy of signs. [3] It is preformed rather than performed. Tourists, it seems, aspire to little other than collecting stereotypical images and they do so without much endeavour. Writings about tourist photography, we may say, have produced lifeless tourists, eventless events and dead geographies.

Aspirational tourist photographers

I will now discuss now how a performance perspective enlivens the analysis of tourist photography. Performance theorists state that performances contain rituals but also play. There is also a significant play element to photography, but this is so often drowned in writings highlighting the ritualized nature of photography and what it represents. Normally, photography is seen as a means to an end (photographs), but the play aspect turns things on its head: photography can now also be an end in itself. The play aspect shows how photography can be a source of pleasure and creativity itself, and this explains its performances. Löfgren states:

The critique of the urge to document misses an important point. The pleasure may not be in gathering up moments to display next winter but just in creating them … much energy goes into the production of these narratives and whatever their fate, producing them was an experience in its own right … Here is an arena where nonartists …do not hesitate to try their hand at producing, a photo narrative …. Here you may become your own director, scriptwriter or scenographer. [4]

Following on from this, we shift from why to how, from studying functions of photography to doings and actions of photography. Photographing is often not a performance of a single, static eye and a rapid click, but an engaged and multi-sensuous body immersed within and moving about in a multi-dimensional place. Photographing tourists look at the environment with heightened interest, curiosity and greater affection. A performance approach can highlight the busy, active and creative ‘bodies of photography’. Conceived as performance, photography is a process over time that requires some patience, skill and artistic aspiration. To cite Suonpää: ‘When you find that you are watching the midnight sun at Nordkapp with hundreds of tourists jostling behind your back, the conveying of romantic experience calls for skilful use of the camera’ [5].

That it requires skill to produce good photographs through the ‘romantic gaze’ emerged in my first ethnography of picturing tourists at the ruined castle Hammershus on theDanishIslandofBornholm[6]. Tourists desired romantic images of the ruins and the surrounding landscapes yet most only took a few such romantic photos because they were considered difficult to make. This study took place before digital cameras became widespread, so each ‘click’ consumed film and there was no guarantee that the photographs would turn out well. As one tourist said: ‘Speaking from experience, gazing at a landscape ... is a totally overwhelming experience: you want to have a picture of it. But such photos are often very disappointing’.

People have learned that it takes skill and an eye for composition to produce good landscape images. The tourists who mainly photograph Hammershus through the ‘romantic gaze’ are those with semi-artistic aspirations and often sophisticated manual cameras. They like the way in which tourist photography allows them time to experiment a little and be creative. Such ‘arty’ tourist photographers also stress the challenge of taking photographic possession of vast landscapes. As one tourist said: ‘Of course, [it is] very tricky ... it’s very difficult to get the right spot, the right time and ... the sun is not out’. They describe the fascination of photography as beating nature – partly through magic, partly through skill – at its own game of producing charm, and beautifying it in a small image on paper.

The ‘romantic gaze’ generates a desire for untouched scenery and solitary viewing. Other tourists bother these photographers.  The art becomes one of patience and of ‘recording over’ other people. To quote one woman: ‘I always spend like 15 minutes waiting so that there are fewer people ... so I don’t have all these horrible tourists in my pictures’. Such lay-artistic photographers are more common among men than women, and bulky professional-looking cameras were primarily male jewellery. There is a male bias to the ‘romantic gaze’, and it is more popular with couples touring without children. This is in line with the fact that, traditionally, ‘serious’ amateur photographic practice and photography clubs have been dominated by men.

But while some tourists aspire to and put creativity into making classical romantic landscapes photographs, for some, such photographs have little appeal, being apparently too impersonal and dead. As one mother said:

Well, we’ve learned never to take photographs without people in them because it’s bloody boring to see a ruin without any people you know ... So we choose some motifs that we think are beautiful or have a nice view, but we make sure that the boys or one of us are in it to make it a little personal.

Here the art is one placing one’s ‘loved ones’ in the attraction such that both are represented aesthetically. These photographers are attentively looking out for viewing-stations, ‘beautiful spots’ and ‘nice views’ to frame their family members and the attraction. While few are concerned with classical issues of landscapes aesthetics, it is still a more involved and skilful activity than the tourist family snap has generally been deemed to be. My ethnography suggests that women take more responsibility for, and have skills in, creating domestic snaps. This reflects the gendering and uneven distribution of domestic skills within many households.  [7]

Digital effects

In 2007-8 I explored, in a new ethnography, how digitization transforms practices and images of tourist photography. [8]. Here I realised that, equipped with digital cameras, tourists tend to photograph faster, spending less time on each photograph. They are not concerned about cost, running out of film and later development each time a photograph is taken: each picture appears to be cost-free and erasable. The interviewees praise this freedom to ‘shoot around’, and they inscribe it with creativity and playful experimentation: ‘We would never have taken 700 photos with [an analogue] camera. And this, I think, is the cool thing about it [the digital camera], that you can play with it…It is a great toy’. The respondents stressed the enjoyment of now being able to experiment freely and being able to see the images straight away and thus delete and re-take those where the experiment did not turn out well: ‘I love them. I think it is great. That you can actually snap snap, delete delete if we need to rather than carrying film and not knowing how they turn out’. Tourist photography has somehow become more serious and experimental because it now seems to be cost-free to produce photographs. In a short span of time, tourists have learnt to consume photographs instantly and digitally upon screens and to delete those deemed unappealing. Consuming and editing photographs has become part of producing photographs, which makes it easier (yet more time-consuming because of re-taking) to produce the anticipated images. Because of the widespread editing, tourists are less likely to be haunted by aesthetically unappealing images in the future, as was so often the case with analogue tourist photography. This affords experimentation and greater aesthetic control over how people and places are represented. Digital cameras push photography in a more playful and creative direction.

While many of the tourists carried camera phones, few used them for ‘serious’ tourist photography, that is, when visiting famous attractions. As Rubenstein says, concerning the first generation of cameras in mobiles:

Most of them prove to be of limited use, as they tend to interfere with the main purpose of the phone, either by shortening the battery life, or by becoming ergonomically cumbersome. The phone that can take digital photographs did not seem to be principally different from these other crossbreed implements whose main attraction is the manifestation of technology at a stage when it is capable of producing hybrids and mutations. The images obtained from these cameras were only good to “muck about”, in the words of the first advertising campaign for these phones [9].

At that time camera phones primarily captured everyday life. So interestingly, camera phones did not initially connect with tourist photography (unlike Kodak’s Brownie Camera). The main reason for this was that camera phones took poor images and they did not allow tourists to express their creativity.[10]

Yet this has changed recently, as today’s tourists are shooting with phones in great numbers. Mobiles have become ‘smart’ and take photographs that can compete with many digital cameras. They also afford extra creativity through various apps and social networking sites devoted to lay-artistic photography, such as Flickr.  Hipstamatic and Instagram are two popular photography apps that afford much creativity and aesthetic layers. Ironically, they represent a retro trend in digital photography, with the square format and the ability to experiment with digital flashes, lenses and filters to simulate the aesthetics of old analogue photographs. Moreover, this format is discreet, and does not declare one’s identity as a tourist. So often tourists are mocked, because tourism (especially in relation to photography) can represent commercialism, superficiality and a distinct lack of ‘coolness’. Shooting with a smart phone, one is less likely to be positioned as yet another ‘insipid tourist’ with a clunky camera around the neck.

Another aspect of the digitization of photography is that tourists have a much wider audience for their photographs, as the Internet has become more open, collaborative and participatory. A key-defining feature of Web 2.0 is that users are involved in processes of production and consumption as they generate and browse online content. Millions of tourist photographs live semi-public and visible lives on blogs and especially social networking sites, where they are more or less open to extended networks and audiences. These can include user-generated travel sites such as www.virtualtourist.com, www.tripadvisor.co.uk, www.trekearth.com, and not least, amateur photography sites such as www.flickr.com or www.instagram.com. These latter sites not only afford a much wider audience but also a sense of community, providing  aesthetic evaluation and communal learning  traditionally afforded by locally-based amateur photography clubs. Moreover, a site like Flickr undermines the traditional distinction between amateur and professional photography, as Getty, the leading company in the field of commercial stock photography, has cooperated with Flickr since they realised the commercial and aesthetic commercial of amateur photographs. Interested Flickr users can now potentially make money when their snaps are used commercially. 

Conclusion

In this article, I have tried to challenge some highbrow assumptions and oversimplifications regarding tourist photography. So often tourist photographs have been dismissed as banal, repetitive and boring. While this portrait is not unfounded, I have begun to illuminate that there is another side too, where creativity and aspirations can thrive. My ethnographic studies have shown that many tourists have a drive to express themselves aesthetically when photographing beautiful buildings and landscapes. The very practice of making photographs is regarded by many as something pleasurable and creative. Even though the pictures may have little aesthetic value, they can provide a valued space for personal communication, artistic experimentation, public engagement and even financial profit.

Footnotes

  1. For more detail on this performance approach, see Michael Haldrup and Jonas Larsen, Tourism, Performance and the Everyday: Consuming the Orient. Routledge, 2010; John Urry and Jonas Larsen, The Tourist Gaze 3.0, London, 2011. back
  2. For more detail see Urry and Larsen, The Tourist Gaze 3.0, London, 2011. back
  3. Martin Parr and Simon Winchester, Small world: A global photographic project, 1987-1994, Stockport, 1995. back
  4. Susan Sontag, On Photography. Harmondsworth, 1977, Peter Osborne Travelling Light. Photography, Travel and Visual Culture, Manchester, 2000. back
  5. Orvar Lofgren, On Holiday: A History of Vacationing. Berkeley, 1999, 74. back
  6. Juha Suonpää ‘Blessed be the photograph: tourism choreographies’, Photographies, 1:1, February 2008, 67-86.  back
  7. Jørgen Ole Bærenholdt, Michael Haldrup, Jonas Larsen, John Urry, Performing Tourist Places. Farnham, 2004. back
  8. Gillian Rose, Doing Family Photography: The Domestic, The Public and The Politics of Sentiment, Farnham, 2010. back
  9. Michael Haldrup and Jonas Larsen, Tourism, Performance and the Everyday: Consuming the Orient. Routledge, 2010. back
  10. Daniel Rubinstein, ‘Cellphone photography; The death of the camera and the arrival of visible speech’, http://lsbu.academia.edu/DanielRubinstein/Papers/98273/Cellphone_photography_The_death_of_the_camera_and_the_arrival_of_visible_speech, accessed 07.05.12. back
  11. Originally published in Issues in contemporary culture and aesthetics, 2:1, May 2005. 

  12. Urry and Larsen, 2011: 159-188. back
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Reconsidering Amateur Photography

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