The art of travel
When travelling, I have no choice but to take myself along as a companion, and with me come all my homebody photographic habits of seeing, noting, valuing, and ranking. They chaperone even the simplest of tourist excursions, annotating furiously from the back seat, and periodically attempting to wrest control of the steering.
Commercial travel photography has an easy comprehensibility that reality only very rarely even attempts to match. For the tourist, visual clarity Ð a well-defined subject placed in an easily grasped narrative Ð is almost always foiled by uncooperative light, intrusive street furniture, badly timed traffic, or the impatient priorities of companions and fellow tourists. There is a tension between any personal reaction to a place, and the expectations imposed by the hive mind. The inevitable differences between photography for tourists and photography by tourists are then conventionally labelled as failings, but they should really be seen as indicators of a genuinely individual experience. The chaperones have to be indulged Ð encouraged, even Ð if a personal response is to be preserved.
A few years ago, I allowed myself to be captivated by how heavy construction machinery on the many building sites in the more modern districts of Barcelona were painted in gentle pastel colours. Instead of the warm glow of medieval stonework, I spent a happy day photographing pink and lilac excavators, bulldozers, dump trucks and scaffolding. The photographs did not show Barcelona in any normal iconic sense, but they were a better measure of my own impression of the city than any collection of well-seen records of heritage or street life could ever have been.
On subsequent trips, I have attempted to indulge this flaneurish technique of pottering about with my eyes open, even on family jaunts to canonical European capitals, where there is something of a moral obligation to expose the young to experiences their schoolmates have actually heard of. Sometimes, the technique involves consciously cultivating a personal sense of composition or style, but it mostly means permitting myself to investigate visual niggles which at first have no obvious connection to the city being visited, but which once collected, become far more representative of my visit there than dutiful records of canonical public monuments. The pastel hydraulic arms of Barcelona have inspired detailed typographies of regal curtains in Stockholm, drainpipes in Prague, and the untidy inevitability of the standard sights of Paris.
This is a work in progress.
Images and text copyright © Struan Gray 2003Ð2016. All rights reserved.