Thursday, April 25, 2024

Travel Photography


I'm back for at least one post because I had some thoughts. Sometimes that leads to more thoughts, which is really the problem with thoughts, isn't it?

My family and I went on a trip, to London for a week and Paris for a week, and it was pretty great as you'd expect, and so on and so forth. I had some thoughts about the nature of Travel for Travel's sake, and photography, and so here we are. I tried to contact everyone on the flight path to see if there was a chance to visit, but I probably forgot some of you. Sorry.


I distinguish here between Travel for Travel's sake and all the other reasons to go to places. One travels for work, for business, to visit people, and so on. Here I am interested in Vacation Travel, the kind of travelling one does in order purely to be in a different place.

I contend that underlying, or entangled with, this kind of travel is a sort of hope or expectation of personal growth. Vague, indefinable, growth: we hope to return from our trip in some way enlarged, perhaps a better person, or a wiser person, or something. We go to Egypt, and as a requirement of the journey we look at the Pyramids and the Sphinx, and in that looking we expect or hope to find some sort of epiphany, some sort of catalyst, some sort of chemical reaction that changes us into something more than we were. This is, I think, an error. I'm not sure where this idea came from, but I think it's a real idea, and I think it's a wrong idea.

That sort of indefinable en-biggening can in fact occur on a Vacation! We do expand, if we pay attention. But it's not at the Tourist Attractions and it's mostly not at the Large Objects or the Expensive Objects or the Beautiful Objects.

When we go to somewhere far away, or even to somewhere not very far away at all, we have the chance to observe new ways of livings ones life.

In our VRBOs in Europe we had laundry facilities in the apartments, which was very nice. These facilities took the form of tiny combined washer-dryer units. The surprising property of these things, to me, was that it takes literally all day to clean and "dry" clothing, and then you have a heap of fairly damp clothing which you festoon all over the place to finish drying. To describe this as "a bit different from the American way" is to severely understate the situation. If I use the "hurry up" cycles, I can produce a small load of clean and bone-dry clothing in an hour, at home.

The consequence here is that you need to plan differently. You should start laundry in, say, the morning. When you get home, you take the damp clothing out and festoon it about, and at bedtime you fold it and put it away. It's not a big thing when you get the hang of it. It's a tiny difference in the rhythm of life. This is where the epiphanies, in my judgement, occur.

When you go to Paris for a week (or go to visit your relatives one town over, or go to Eritrea to fight with or against the rebels) you experience a life with a texture different from the life you live at home. You will, more or less by necessity, adapt to the new rhythms, the differences subtle and vast between this life and that one. You become larger. You return home with a slightly wider understanding of how one might live one's life.

It seems foolish to assert that the washing machine affected me more than the Eiffel Tower, but I think it genuinely did.

And now onwards to some sort of connection with the photo and with photography.

Susan Sontag famously made some remarks about vacation photos. She describes them, I think, as acquistions, the act of photographing the Sphinx is an effort to acquire the Sphinx. This is pretty silly, but in some sense she was on to something.

I think what we're doing when we photograph the Sphinx is that we're acquiring the experience of looking at the Sphinx. We were hoping for an epiphany, which may or may not have manifested itself. By photographing it, we acquire a photograph, a little portal back to that original experience of seeing the Sphinx. Unconsciously, perhaps, we hope to "return" to this moment, to rediscover, or perhaps to cast about fruitlessly again for, the epiphany we wanted. We hope also to share this moment with friends and family, to either lord our own growth over them, or perhaps to share that experience, that growth, with them.

In all (most? many?) cases, though, I think that there is no growth, no epiphany, the photograph in the end is no different from the postcard (which has a sharper and better lit photograph anyway), and the Sphinx didn't make us much different in the first place. The things that did make us bigger and better are impossible to photograph being nothing more than the textural details of life in this place.

Berger's "Ways of Seeing" opens with a great bit in which he demolishes Walter Benjamin by demonstrating that there is not, there cannot be, any special "aura" associated with an original artwork. Any "aura" you feel is an illusion produced by you, inside yourself. In the same way, the Sphinx has no "aura" and the Eiffel Tower does not have within itself the power to change you. You might, perhaps, choose to be changed in its presense, somehow, but the objects are just sitting there. The textural detail of life, on the other hand, has an almost mechanical action on your mind. You are forced to adapt to the washing machine if you want clean underwear, you are forced to cope with the almost-instant-on hot water heater every time you shower, and if you want to eat, you're going to have to sort through the subtle differences in how to get food here.

Of course I took a bunch of photos, and I drew some pictures, but none of them are connected to that desire to be enlarged, they're just records of stuff we saw. In the end I just sort of sift through them, unsure what to make of it all. It's a process.

I did see this young and beautiful woman in the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in Paris. Note the, uh, wear patterns. After a moment's consideration, I elected not to contribute, but I did take the picture.


  1. My father told me that travel is broadening. I agree. It is very easy to make assumptions about a different culture...from afar. Once there you discover that most people want the same things you want, family, security etc. The little washing machine differences end up being memorable footnotes. We are lucky enough to have a small apartment in a tiny hill town inProvence. We have gone there for 30 years. We know the people of the village well and participate in many activities there. We learn so much from our village friends and the great melting pot of ex-pats from here, Canada, Norway, England,Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Belgium and Italy.

  2. Having read several of his books, I was excited to go to a talk by Pico Iyer last week. Erudite, amusing and he just talked for an hour - no damned Powerpoint.

  3. I love seeing all the Potemkin villages. They're everywhere!