On Monday the ‘arctic’ weather conditions forced the Tower to close and, as a result of transport disruption, only a few members of staff were able to make it to work at all. As you would probably expect with such rare and magical weather, some of those who had managed the arduous trip had brought their cameras and were photographing the Tower in, as Paul Simon wrote, ‘a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow’. A colleague was surprised that as someone who works in a major tourist attraction but who also purports to be a photographer, my automatic response was not to abandon all efforts of work, get a camera out and start snappin’ away.
As I tried to explain why that was not the case, the thought occurred to me that my colleague’s view of photography was as a medium for capturing ‘pretty pictures’ as part of the tourist experience, a purely aesthetic endeavour without any intellectual weight to it at all. For a moment I was on the defensive, having to justify photography’s position as a form of fine art, of self-expression, in the same category as music, drawing or painting. I found myself saying something very haughty about why my colleague would never have the same thought if I’d been a painter… it’s snowing outside so therefore I must paint a pretty picture. Terrible.
This experience led me to some thoughts about how Chris’s role as photographer in residence in a major tourist attraction is interpreted. Confusingly enough, photography and tourism are already intertwined, in fact without photography tourism could not be sustained as it is one of the tools used to create the desire to undertake tourist activity in the first place. In the case of the Tower, photography is used to represent and articulate the history that Historic Royal Palaces presents to the public and tourists are happy to snap away ‘collecting’ evidence of this history almost without question.
Chris’s role, on the other hand, facilitates a longer, more sustained and questioning gaze, an opportunity to study the site and its history, to use the medium of photography to reflect on the tourist gaze that photography itself has shaped and create a coherent body of work to reflect this. Photography, in this guise, is not about creating (more) pretty pictures of the Tower, rather it is about using the medium as one of personal expression to present a unifying idea through a large body of work. The idea is to create interesting and beautiful images but also to give you something to think about when you’re looking at them.
Of course, as Chris is a process-driven artist he wasn’t able to articulate what his body of work would reflect at the beginning of his residency, but as the end approaches his ideas are beginning to take greater shape. However, Chris’s work cannot be fully appreciated unless it is contextualised within a wider photographic history, and so over the next few posts I’ll be doing precisely that as I explore photography’s complicated relationship with tourism.