The great contradiction of tourism

Although there had been tourists before the 19th century (I’m thinking of the Grand Tour here), what we recognise as mass tourism didn’t take shape until the 19th century when work became more regulated and as a result, so did the idea of ‘taking a holiday’.  Industrialisation brought urbanisation (and suburbanisation) and with it a fear that ancient traditions and landscapes of Britain were being lost.

As a result there was a renewed interest, particularly by the middle classes who had the time to think about these things, to visit those ‘authentic’ sites of British history before they were lost to industrial Britain.  One such site was Stratford-upon-Avon, home of Shakespeare, which started to arouse significant tourist interest in the late 19th century.  The problem was that as tourists weren’t part of the regular landscape their very presence actually contributed to a decline in authenticity, a situation further complicated as the local industry would develop around the needs of the growing tourist industry.  This is the great contradiction of tourism and its quest for authenticity.

Confidence in photography’s objectivity, to literally capture what was placed in front of the camera, was at an all time high at this period, and so several photographers were either despatched, or despatched themselves, to Stratford in order to capture true Shakesperean authenticity in photographs before it was lost forever.  This would also be beneficial for the tourists as by going to the locations that were in these photographs, published in tourist guides, they could overcome the great contradiction of tourism and satisfy themselves that they had walked in Shakespeare’s footsteps.  Not surprisingly, there was a huge growth of tourist guides and popular histories at this time that all claimed to deliver the authentic Shakespeare experience.

The Old Lock at Welford, James Leon Williams.  From The Homes and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892)

The Old Lock at Welford, James Leon Williams. From The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892)

The American dentist, James Leon Williams, who receives our thanks for inventing modern dentures, but more significantly for tourists was something of a photographer, offering the world The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892) which was a heavily romanticised and nostalgic view of Shakespeare-land with over 200 illustrations and 45 photogravures.  This book was created for the American market and was reviewed in the New York Times where it curiously ignored the long-established obsession for Shakespeare already existing among the English and claimed that Americans were solely responsible for the active interest in Stratford-upon-Avon as Shakespeare’s birthplace.

New York Times review of The Homes and Haunts of Shakespeare (1892)

New York Times review of The Home and Haunts of Shakespeare (1891)

Although there were many other Shakespeare photographic histories, the focus Williams had on sentiment and nostalgia through the use of photogravure was intended to create a longing and desire among its readers to visit these locations, even though for most readers it would be financially impossible. Nevertheless, what we see here is the manner in which photography informs the tourist experience, something which has only accelerated and spread as technology itself has facilitated the use of photographic images in print, on screen and now on the internet.  Photography informs the desire to visit certain locations, allows tourists to recognise them as ‘authentic’ when they see them, but also to associate experiences with them – ye olde England in Stratford-upon-Avon, the romance of Paris with the Eiffel Tower, and so on.

In the next post I’ll look at the work of some photographers who work in opposition to the tourist experience I’ve described here.

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