The Design Observer Group

Posted 05.16.13

Jim Bassett

“Everyone a Tourist”

Jim Bassett, El Castillo #20 (top), #8 (bottom) 2012.

The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people's reality, and eventually in one's own.
— Susan Sontag, New York Review of Books, April 18, 1974

A year ago I traveled to Chichén Itzá to visit the storied city that the Mayans built in what is now the Mexican state of Yucatán. As a designer and educator, I was of course interested in the stepped pyramid El Castillo, which was built between the 9th and 12th centuries, and which has been the focus of both adventure tourism and archeological fieldwork since the mid 19th century. But even more, as a photographer, I was interested in exploring the various ways in which the famous ruins have been represented over time, and might be depicted today.

To prepare, I considered various precedents, including the photographs of the 19th-century European archeologist Désiré Charnay (French, 1828 – 1915), who studied the Mayan ruins in the late 1850s and in 1863 produced a book, Le Mexique, souvenirs et impressions de voyage, and of Alfred Maudslay (British, 1850 – 1931), who first explored Chichén Itzá in the 1880s and eventually recorded his findings in the multi-volume Biologia Centrali-Americana, published in 1902. Not surprisingly, both Charnay and Maudslay, pioneers of the emerging discipline of archeology, deployed the camera as an extension of their field research — as a recording tool that could advance the aims of scientific objectivity. I also considered the mid 20th-century photography of the Swiss journalist Henri Stierlin (born 1928), whose 1968 Living Architecture: Ancient Mexican contains high-contrast black-and-white heliogravure plates of Yucatan monuments. This large-format volume exemplifies a type of art photography that has become familiar (including in the pages of architecture magazines): the images are notably unpopulated and, through the use of lighting and camera angles, they aim for dramatic effects. As such — sans people and the associated ephemera of personal effects — the images emphasize the underlying orders of form and geometry. And finally I considered a third and more recent precedent: the work of contemporary photographers like Martin Parr (British, born 1952), whose images of famous tourist sites around the world concentrate less on the sites than on the tourists — the better to reveal the disconnect between the lingering romance of exotic travel (as captured in images like Stierlin's) and the reality of mass tourism.


Thus prepared, my own photographs fall into two broad categories. Some are contemporary versions of the earlier traditions of field documentation and art photography: black-and-white images, taken early in the morning, when the archeological sites were relatively empty, in which the central and unrelenting focus is the ancient architecture and its setting — the pure forms of the structures, articulated by shadows and sun angles. The others were taken in the dizzying heat of the Yucatan afternoon, when the tour buses arrive en masse, and the mood of Chichén Itzá is transformed. A French family appears on the scene. Un, deux, trois: a photo — a keepsake — is taken; the camera has done its work — the looking — and the vacation continues. Tourists interact not only with the monuments but also with the vendors. Local men rake the paths, piling the leaves; for them, the tourists seem a passing distraction amid the ancient monuments.

For me the differences between the black-and-white and the color photographs raise persistent questions about the inevitably incomplete nature of appearances, about the ease with which we can manipulate mood and meaning (through the selective cropping or assembling of context), and about the different associations of photographic style (e.g., that black-and-white is somehow more artistic, color more contemporary). We have been debating such questions for decades, and will continue to do so, for the answers are always contingent.