In the era of vacation photoshoots, iPhone cameras, and “doing it for the Insta,” 21st century vacations often include more time spent camera-in-hand than not. History of Art and Architecture Chair Robin E. Kelsey, who specializes in the history of photography, sits down with FM to chat about our tourist tendencies.
Fifteen Minutes: Tell us a little bit about your theories on tourism and tourist photography. What are the basics?
Robin E. Kelsey: Tourism and photography have been entwined for about as long as photography has been with us. Photography is, among other things, an inquisitive technology, a technology that allows us to collect traces of our experiences. It was quite common early in the history of photography for people to purchase photographs from tourist sites, even when photographic processes were too difficult for most people to master. Then, in the 1880s, when more user-friendly and mobile technologies were developed, such as the early Kodak cameras, it became more common for tourists to take photographs.
One of the interesting things now is that because most photographs are shared online, there’s a way in which the connection to the person who made them is more attenuated. For example, once upon a time, when you went on some kind of vacation or tourist excursion, you would take photographs and have them developed and put in an album that would be on your coffee table. Everyone looking at that album would understand that the pictures represent the things that you had seen in person. So if there were pictures of the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the person looking at the album knew that you were there. When you put your pictures on the Internet, they’re not as connected to you in the same way.... One reason I think we have “selfies”... is that a selfie is a way to tag a photograph as belonging to you in a way that didn’t used to be necessary.... In many ways, it’s just a stamp.
FM: What first made you think about the bigger implications of tourist photography?
RK: I wasn’t the first to write about it. Susan Sontag wrote very eloquently about it in the 1970s. But certainly my experience as a Harvard professor on this campus is one that brings me close every day to tourism photography.... I’ve been asked on a number of occasions, “Where’s the entrance to Harvard? Where’s the gate?” People seem to want that gate that says “Harvard” in huge letters and it’s not really on our campus, so it’s interesting to see tourists try to figure out: “How do I get a photo that signifies Harvard to people who’ve never been here?” And that’s not easy.
One experience that made me think a lot about tourist photography was a safari in Tanzania and Kenya. I knew there was a close relationship with the gun and camera historically, but it was interesting to have that really brought home in that experience.
FM: How many photos do you take on an average vacation?
RK: It depends a lot. I do make a point on certain occasions to not take any photographs. I really do enjoy the modes of attention that I have when I’m not taking photographs.
When I am taking photographs, I generally am taking photographs to make certain kinds of photographs rather than to memorialize the trip. Often, if I’m in a group such as my family, I’m not the one who takes the shot of everyone standing and smiling in front of such-and-such monument. Often that photo gets made, but it’s usually not by me. Part of it is I’m just thinking about other things. I have two daughters, and they make endless fun of the things that I photograph. For example, we traveled a lot last year while I was on sabbatical, and at one point we were literally a stone’s throw from a sea otter who was swimming along—we were on the coast of California—and I photographed a dead seagull instead.
FM: What’s your favorite place you’ve ever traveled?
RK: Most of my favorite experiences have been traveling in the backcountry, either canoeing or backpacking. I grew up doing both. I’m a huge nature freak. Mostly canoeing in Canada and Minnesota (which is my home state) and then backpacking mainly in the Rockies in the West, but elsewhere, in Alaska.
FM: What do you recommend to our readers going on vacation?
RK: Remember to look at things without your camera. I suppose it’s obvious, but I really do think that you get a lot out of observing things and valuing that moment in which you’re observing them, and not simply being on a vacation for the future moment of having people see that you were on vacation. I think it’s good to try to return your life to your own experience.