The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Archive: 07/2009 - Page 1
I came across these photos of tourists on Easter Island on our site and their presence has kind of baffled me. They’re neither fine art prints, nor even a tourist’s snapshots of the islands, perhaps laden with some kind of personal or even intimate look into a stranger’s vacation. Rather, they’re 1960s photo reproductions from a travel brochure for Easter Island by the tour company Lindblad Expeditions. But what could be blasé marketing photos actually present a unique view into the beginnings of commercial tourism in an extremely remote locale.
Easter Islanders, or Rapanui Islanders as they call themselves, often joke about how the Polynesian name for their home (Rapa Nui) can be translated as either “the navel of the world” or “the place at the end of the world.” The nearest populated land is the island of Pitcairn over 1,180 miles away. Until Lindblad organized the first civilian flight into Easter Island in 1967, the island had only been regularly reachable by the annual supply ship of the Chilean Navy. Lindblad also imported pickup trucks from the US (the only non-government vehicles on the island) and struck a deal with the state hotel agency to allow his visitors to stay in a tent city that was erected for tourists. By 1968, when these photos were published, flights came in once a month and Lindblad had established a regular itinerary that included visits to the moai; a Sunday church service in Tahitian; and a barbeque lunch at Anakena (the one white sand beach on the island), which was planted with coconut palms imported by the Chilean Navy in the 1950s.
Yet, a Washington Post article detailing the trip warned readers, “This isn’t Tahiti. A tourist not too concerned about comfort may now view stone age wonders formerly beheld only by archeologists . . .” And the island’s own mayor joked, “We not only have one of the world’s most expensive hotels, but also one of the most uncomfortable. We call it the concentration camp. . .”
It is interesting, then, that our photographs advertising Lindblad’s trip to Easter Island don’t actually picture the tourist tent city, and seem to glorify a kind of tropical paradise where bronzed and attractive young women dance in grass skirts and smiling men play guitars in Hawaiian shirts. It makes you wonder if the grandmotherly types seated for a lecture in front of the moai knew that they were essentially signing up for an outrageously expensive camping trip, complete with erratic water supply and a muddy ¼ mile trek to common bathroom facilities. I might be jumping to conclusions, since without access to the original brochure I can neither read the captions nor see all of the photos that Lindblad used to advertise Easter Island. Regardless, it is the potential incongruity of these photos and the actual tourist’s experience that makes them interesting: they remind you that what you see and what you get (especially on vacation) may be two very separate things.
Last weekend, I was working, editing a short essay about the rise of “citizen journalism” by Fred Ritchin, author of the recently published After Photography, which we’ll be uploading soon on click! photography changes everything. One of the interesting points Fred makes is that with the spread of cell phone cameras and digital photography, as multiple images made by multiple photographers at the same event become available on the Internet, it’s going to be hard for people to claim that any single news photograph is a hoax. But what about news photos that are made when no one else is around? And what about one of the most controversial ones from the past?
For years, the veracity of a number of historic images — including Joe Rosenthal’s classic Iwo Jima flag raising picture, Arthur Rothstein’s famous Dust Bowl sandstorm shot, photographs and filmed footage of man’s first steps on the moon — have been challenged by photo-doubters. Recent articles on both Time Magazine’s and London’s The Guardian websites update the story about the lingering doubts that have dogged Robert Capa’s iconic Spanish Civil War image from 1936, often called “The Fallen Soldier.” That image purportedly shows a militiaman the instant he’s been struck by a bullet. The photograph cemented Capa’s reputation as the consummate war photographer, and is celebrated for its graphic, emotional and political impact. To a great extent, the picture’s power stems from illustrating, as only photography could, the split second when life comes to an end. On top of that, the photograph has always underscored both the dangers and romance of photojournalism.
Interestingly, a traveling exhibition of Capa’s work that included many of his previously unpublished photographs from the Spanish Civil War, opened recently in Barcelona, and prompted local reporters and historians to address the controversy surrounding the photo by pinpointing exactly where and when it was taken. Ultimately, they determined the photo was taken 30 miles away from where Capa located it. But, does a topological discrepancy lend credence to the claim that the photograph was staged, as some of its observers have suggested? A representative from New York’s International Center of Photography, which circulated the exhibition and represents the Robert Capa Archive, acknowledges that Capa might have gotten the location wrong, but the picture’s not a fake.
And so the controversy continues, as will questions about how accurate we want or expect any photograph to be. Sometimes we want pictures to tell the truth. Other times, we’re happier when they stretch or redefine what truth and/or reality are supposed to look like. Ultimately that makes us and the pictures we make all the more interesting.
The first examples of travel photography are almost simultaneous with the invention of photography itself. In 1841, following an extensive trip through the Middle East, wine merchant and early photographer, Gaspard-Pierre-Gustave Joly de Lotbinière, published Excursions Daguerriennes and Panorama d’Égypt et de Nubie. Not only had Joly de Lotbinière taken the first ever photographs of the Acropolis and the Pyramids, but the publications, which converted the unique daguerreotypes into photo-lithographs, made the antique world available to an audience curious not only about this world, but also eager to experience the new invention of photography. The British journal, The Spectator, wrote that the remarkable views in the publications, “are beautiful as works of art, and of course exact representations of the places.”
Capturing a sense of place in picturesque ways has occupied a great deal of photographic enterprise ever since. The introduction of photographically illustrated books, albums, and tourist guides, helped shape the initial impulse of tourism in the mid-nineteenth century. With newly established transportation routes and trade markets, enterprising photographers roamed the world capturing views of distant lands and people for an insatiable tourist public. Simultaneously, photographic studios were established throughout the world to sell travel photographs as souvenirs and mementos, to both the well-to-do traveler and the would-be traveler—armchair travelers they were called, those who preferred to experience the delights of travel without its discomforts. Who could substitute an image of the Pyramids or Yosemite, for example, for the experience of the place itself? While more of the world was revealed, however, did the world really get bigger? Or was it the audience for the world that got bigger?
More recently, new technologies have expanded our ability to travel the world through pictures. Programs like Microsoft’s Photosynth allow us to seamlessly zoom through thousands of images and assemble static photos into navigable spaces. Google’s Street View similarly gives us the technological means to capture and experience the streets of Paris or Tokyo. Google Earth prepares us virtually to get to places physically. For years, live webcams have supplied a real time view of all kinds of places, from the top of Mount Washington to an intersection in center city Philadelphia. And before them, the armchair traveler toured the world through a myriad of special 3-D effects, including the stereoscope and stereograph, View-Masters, and other optical devices.
Today, hundreds of virtual armchair travel companies can be found on the web. Museums and tourists sites offer their own virtual tours with an amazing array of audio visual guides, commentaries and resources. Zooming through the galleries of the Louvre without the crowds or the jetlag is a pretty enticing way to visit the Mona Liza. But are you there? The world, and the entire universe for that matter, is within reach, but we might also begin to think about the ways the view makes us both closer and more distant. The underlying activity of the armchair tourist is one of a photography of collecting, editing, and presentation. As consumers of photographers we are all tourists and as responsible travelers it should be our responsibility to travel knowingly, as fluent in the language of images as with the local dialect, wherever we may be. If not, and as put by a 1960s generation of mind travelers, members of the Firesign Theatre (who used chemical rather than digital means for their armchair excursions): “How can you be in two places at once if you’re not anywhere at all?”
Merry Foresta is the Former Director of the Smithsonian Photography Initiative.
It’s no wonder that this photo of soldiers sorting holiday mail is such a favorite on the Commons. It clearly tugs on the heart strings of those who know (or try to imagine) what it would be like to be in the military and away from family and friends during the holidays. But aside from that, the juxtapositions in the photo are pretty hilarious: a hockey stick; a spare tire; crushed boxes clearly marked "Fragile," and "GLASS—With Care"; and some awkward facial expressions on the soldiers working to sort through it all.
One box in particular, labeled "From BETTER HOMES Club Plan, Cambridge, Mass," caught my eye. Flickr user walterkeenan added a helpful tag and link on the box. Some more research helped me discover that Better Homes Club Plan was a catalog club plan located in Cambridge, Massachusetts whereby subscribers could receive house wares, linens, clothing and toys by mail order. This got me thinking: would a hardy 1940s military man really be receiving the Knowle’s China Company’s charming Floral Pattern teacups or a Cannon Mills green floral-printed tablecloth? Or maybe this package was meant for a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) or WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) member who was simply eager to make a homey environment while she bunked up in less-than-quaint barracks?
Perhaps I’m being close-minded, but considering the packages in our photo (wouldn’t the military provide spare tires for their own vehicles?), I’m somewhat skeptical that these soldiers were actually working at any military Army & Air Force Post Office (9/24/09: Flickr user walterkeenan helpfully pointed out that the Air Force didn't actually come about until 1947—I just mean to point out here that this photo probably wasn't taken in a military post office). As Flickr user copsunited1 mentioned in the comments, during this time period, it was often a challenge for the postal service to handle the great volume of mail coming through during the holiday season. In fact, on December 19 of 1944 (probably the same year as our photo), a New York Times headline remarked, "HOLIDAY MAIL PEAK IS DUE TOMORROW: Soldiers, Service Men’s Wives Recruited to Aid in Record Rush at Postoffices."
But in the end, it really makes no difference where or for whom these servicemen worked to sort through this mountain of packages. This image charms because it speaks to the can-do spirit of the WWII era and the timeless joy of receiving holiday gifts through the mail.
Please be aware that some of the photographs included in links within this post may contain graphic and emotionally disturbing material.
Which are more powerful, still images or moving ones? Which are more "truthful?" The answer to both questions is, "It depends." A couple of weeks ago, as leaders of G8 countries convened in Italy, a still photograph of Barack Obama supposedly checking out a young woman walking past him and up some stairs, created a stir in the media.
The buzz was that both Obama’s and French leader Nicholas Sarkoszy’s heads were literally spinning when Mayara Tavares, an attractive Brazilian 17-year-old, moved past them. A still photograph showing an unscripted and potentially embarrassing moment spread quickly and all around the world. Were these two world leaders—both married, middle aged fathers—actually caught oggling? And if so, was there something something wrong with that? There was the girl’s father’s point of view. "My daughter is not a model and she is not a sex symbol." Eduardo Tavares told The New York Post. "She is dedicated to healing the poor, not to seducing world leaders. This is the wrong image of my daughter. That photograph has ruined my whole family." Well, maybe, but no one seems to spending much time collecting photographic evidence of that.
But what we did see pretty quickly was an ABC News video of the "incident," shot the same time the still photograph was taken, that told a different story and got the President off the hook. Case closed. Or sort of. I wish I knew what Carla Bruni—a former model and Sarkoszy’s wife—might have thought of it, given that a 1993 nude still photograph of her sold for $91,000, more than 60 times the estimated price, at auction last April.
At first, all the media time, space and attention this photo "story" took up got me thinking about our interest in and appetite for "gotcha" pictures. But it also reminded me of something else altogether—the startling graphic and emotional impact some still photographic images have, in contrast to film or video footage shot of the same event. A classic example of this phenomenon is evident when you compare Eddie Adams’ classic photograph of a Vietnamese general shooting a Vietcong officer and the NBC News footage (no longer available online) taken by a cameraman standing right next to Adams. In the video tape, what transpires happens almost too quickly to grasp. In Adams’ photograph, the violence of the situation and the split second the trigger was pulled, frozen in time, turned iconic. Both the event itself and picture of it made the news and went on to become iconic. As Adams said when I interviewed him about fifteen years ago: "There’s film footage of the shooting, but it’s not what you remember. You remember the picture. This is why I’m a still photographer. You do a still picture, and it’s here today and it’s here tomorrow."
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