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A Picture's Worth a Thousand Cities

By Kristie T. La, Crimson Staff Writer

Nearly every time I go to a museum, I’m asked to move. I’m blocking someone’s camera or camcorder. Outside, I run into a related problem, walking regularly into someone’s picture or straight into someone. It’s painfully funny how the visitor’s approach to the museum and the tourist’s plan for a city mirror one another.

Maybe it always was this way and only now is it so evident, but the purposes of traveling and of going to a museum seem to have both become simply to fulfill expectations and to document them as such. The tourism industry and the museum education office encourage the former; for the latter, the tourist and museum-goer turns to the camera. In turn, the two create and perpetuate a terrible cycle that makes the complexity and ambiguity of cities and artwork into something static and stale.

There is no avoiding or forgetting preconceptions and expectations. For the tourist the city is as meticulously curated as any museum. It adheres to an idea of the city stored in the collective consciousness of travel television, popular movies, classic novels, long-held stereotypes, and the photographs that make their way onto postcards, Facebook, photo albums, and slideshows. Buses lumber down identical routes, stopping at every tourist destination for photographs and souvenirs, just as docents shepherd tour groups to the major works (and gift shops) housed in their institutions. Judging by the loudspeakers, the intricate number-assigning and person-counting, the constant reviewing of itinerary and maps, and the persistent waving of little flags, the biggest fear of both parties seems to be that someone will get lost. To wander is somehow unacceptable, because to wander is for us and our cameras to risk missing what we have learned to anticipate.

It’s unclear who is taking the cues from whom. Is the museum accommodating itself to the onslaught of tourism? Or is the tourism industry understanding and fashioning the city according to the museum? What gets a larger frenzy of cameras: the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa? The camera records indiscriminately, taking in what is in its scope in any particular moment—it acts the same whether capturing a family vacation portrait or the inner contents of your bag. Cameras take no notice of language barriers or locals who do not want their photograph taken. They cannot recognize a Matisse and its significance—at best they reproduce it in postcard quality. Food, flowers, and spices are perishable, but photographs on a laptop or in an album are readily stored, easily consumable and universally comprehensible.

Photography, when practiced in this manner, doesn’t teach one to look, reflect, or question, but merely to find, categorize, and confirm. How often have we heard the exclamation: It is just like in the pictures! The search then is to make each picture resemble as closely as possible the emblematic, the recognizable, and the already memorialized image. Context—what can place a photograph in time rather than in the artificial blur of guidebooks and exhibition catalogues—is disastrous.

This pursuit promises control precisely where we typically have none. Being in a foreign city is chaotic—it seems to expand relentlessly and you have to decide where to start, go, and end; where to eat, where to sleep, and more besides. The museum, for the casual visitor, is similar—centuries of works and a mess of a historical trajectory are crammed into an overwhelmingly large space. The camera makes both conquerable in the most demeaning of ways. The city is multi-faceted and mercurial, evading categorization, so much more than the sum of its monuments. Artworks in museums remain for the most part the same, but they are also the product of too many variables to name— the market, the agency of the artist, reception, medium, artistic self-construction, social capital, political control, artistic institutions, etc. With the steady snapping and flashing of the camera, the yelps of “Cheese!,” and the waddling of parents and toddlers, the city and its artwork are reduced to postcards.

There’s Paris, the Mona Lisa, Berlin, the Eiffel tower, Nefertiti... where were we again?

­—Columnist Kristie T. La can be reached at kla@college.harvard.edu.

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