And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 4 May 2010


A mysterious grand tour in the 1920s

Once again everything was deserted in the immense hotel. Empty salons, corridors, salons, doors, doors, salons...empty chairs, deep armchairs...stairs, steps, steps one after objects, empty glasses...
Last Year at Marienbad: Directed by Alain Resnais

It’s spring in Istanbul and the tourists have arrived. They gather outside the Hagia Sophia for group photos, snap away at the Blue Mosque and stop at the entrance to the Grand Bazaar to take one shot before venturing in. Some have other ideas and wander alone, photographing architectural features and streetscapes. Then there are the few who appear driven by different impulses. Occasionally a tourist will stop, take a photo and move on and when you look to where their camera was pointed it’s hard to see what attracted them to an empty laneway or rubbish bins against a stone wall. Maybe they are doing something really interesting and travelling the world in search of specific details; the pattern of shadows on brickwork, old signage or deliberately avoiding the typical sights in favour of the commonplace and banal. They are hunting the images that others have missed. In the end they don’t have a record of Istanbul so much as what it means to be a tourist. ‘This is not a photograph of the city; it’s of me and what I feel like when I’m here.’ That is, if that’s what they’re doing.

Between 1925 and 1927 a group of people, two men, a woman and the photographer, went on a grand tour, from England to Venice and Switzerland, to Jerusalem and Canada. Of course it may not have been one trip but several yet it appears they travelled together. We don’t know any more about them except that they were middle aged, possibly retired, and dressed better than modern tourists.

The mystery of who these people were is intrinsic to the images. They appear in most of them, dwarfed by the buildings or the landscape and in all but the first (in this series, not necessarily the sequence in which they were taken) they are simply standing, holding much the same static pose in each shot, their faces obscured but unsmiling. We all do this of course - put our friends in front of monuments – but in a lot of the photos the figures are too small and obscure to suffice as portraits. Another noticeable aspect of these photographs is the absence of levity. It is as though these people had a purpose other than to enjoy themselves. A grand tour to get acculturated was and remains a principle of tourism yet if that was their purpose some of the locations are odd; Land’s End in Cornwall, a train station in Switzerland and the shore of the Dead Sea. Where, you might wonder, is St Mark’s Square or the Dome of the Rock, and, though Canadians may beg to wonder why, Toronto, the industrial harbourside especially, wasn’t on many itineraries for a grand tour. Was that really what they were on?

The images have a rawness that gives them a certain authenticity. The way the prow of the gondola intrudes into the photograph of the Rialto Bridge disrupts the composition yet makes it complete. Take it away and we’re left with a photograph thousands, maybe millions of tourists have taken since. Others have a muddy quality that call to mind amateur watercolours but again, if they were perfectly exposed and printed we wouldn’t be left with much to ponder. If alienation is too strong a word to use here, the way the people keep appearing in the photographs as stiff, tiny dark figures against the background recalls Last Year at Marienbad, at least in the way they are detached from their surroundings, as if the places they visit are of secondary interest. Even their communication with each other is minimal. It’s easy to imagine them drifting from Venice to Switzerland and down to Jerusalem holding cryptic, non-sequential conversations. (Another detail; regardless of which country they are in they wear heavy coats. Presumably they preferred travelling in winter.)

Here’s the thing. We may be looking at a set of photographs a group of ordinary tourists took of their travels but there is something about them that suggests otherwise. There’s a story here but like a novel where the narrator reaches for the truth and falls just short, the details we get and those that are missing combine to leave us asking more questions at the end than when we started.


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