How To Be a Good Tourist

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, on flickr.

Photo by Hans Olofsson, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, 2011, published on flickr.

The European holiday season has started, and, with it, the season of sight-seeing and snapshots.

On recent holidays, it struck me how many tourists take photos of famous monuments, of works of art or of landscapes, instead of looking at them.

This week, I came across a marvellous example. It was in an article on the Ghent Altarpiece, a famous set of religious paintings dating from the fifteenth century (local name Het Lam Gods, by Hubert and Jan van Eyck). Every year, thousands of visitors flock together in Ghent’s Saint Bavo Cathedral to see it. Or do they?

The altarpiece itself has been sitting in one of the chapels in the back of the church for the past few decades. (At the moment of writing, it is being treated for conservation elsewhere.) But immediately upon entering the church, visitors encounter a life-size copy of the work. It is this copy in front of which tourists linger the longest.

One wonders whether a certain confusion about possibly having reached their destination already plays a role here. Anyhow, according to the article I read, tourists stay with the reproduction longer than with the original because it is the version they are allowed to take photos of.

It is easy to be dismissive of this kind of behaviour, and perhaps with some ground, too: a photo taken of a painting will never be as good as either the original (which the photographer paid little attention to) or the professional reproductions (which they did not buy). The photographer missed their one opportunity to see a stunning work of art in its full size, its most flamboyant colours, its moving texture, and its original setting – in this case the very church it was designed for. From now on, it will only be a small rectangle on a screen again, or a pixelated print in an album.

Nevertheless, such dismissal also serves to emphasise status differences: who knows best how to enjoy art?

And anyway, it is more interesting to try and understand the photo tourist than to be annoyed by them. So: why might taking a photo be the most important thing to do for some when faced with a famous sight? So far, I have come across two important reasons:

  1. Many people find it important to have some sort of evidence that they themselves have in actual fact been present at this or that famous location and seen the famous object. Especially an amateurish photo is probably an asset rather than a hindrance in providing such evidence.
  2. Taking a photo is a way of engaging with a place. Because, okay, we have arrived in this church: now what? We’ve established the painting is there; now do we walk away again? Ah, we are supposed to look at it? Just stand and look? What is that, looking – what does one actually do? What I mean is that it may take an upbringing in a specific milieu to become comfortable with the kind of behaviour that museum curators, church sextons and other cultural hosts expect of their guests. Enjoying a static image can be hard. What do you do with your eyes, with your hands, and what should you be thinking about? Photography then becomes a way of knowing what to do with yourself.

I am curious to find out about other people’s experiences with (non-art) touristic photography.

Pierre François de Noter, 'Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent', 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

In this nineteenth-century view on sixteenth-century church-going (so before the days of photography), the famous altarpiece does not command much direct attention either, which is odd in the nineteenth-century nationalist context of art-historical pride. Painting by Pierre François de Noter, ‘Het Lam Gods van de gebroeders van Eyck in de Sint Bavo te Gent’, 1829. Now in the Rijksmusem Amsterdam, SK-A-4264.

 

Want to know more about the interesting behaviour of tourists? Read Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (London, 1976).

The article on the Altarpiece appeared in a book on the collective memory of the Low Countries: Wessel Krul, ‘Het Lam Gods’, in Jo Tollebeek and Henk te Velde (ed.), Het geheugen van de Lage Landen (Rekkem, 2009), 172-9.

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