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.