My project for Themes in Contemporary Photography aims to celebrate the modern rural/seaside family holiday through capturing iconographically tuned images that mirror the style and composition found in early to mid twentieth century British tourism advertisements. From my research, I found that photographic practices on holidays have changed in the wake of digital cameras and social media to focus more prominently on the subjects on the holiday, instead of capturing the look and feel of the place being visited. To attempt to reverse this, my images will depict tourist activities and locations, but without the tourists to create holiday images that hopefully speak to a wider audience.
My major influence for this project are old-style British tourism advertisements, particularly the now iconic railway posters of the early twentieth century. Although designed for a different era (reaching their heyday in the inter-war years), my infatuation with these posters is born out of their ability to still capture to this day what it is that we look for in a British holiday.
I personally feel that the most part of the posters’ success comes in their subtly. In simply combining a painting print with bold typography sat beneath it to label where, or what it is we are seeing, we are forced to consider how we may ourselves travel there. The answer is to be found spanning both of the lower corners of the prints: British Railways (or previously, GWR, LNER, LMS & Southern).
However, it is clear that at the heart of this winning formula there had to also be a winning painting, which makes it hardly surprising when one learns that British Railways commissioned many fine artists, including members of the Royal Academy of Art at the time, to paint for them. Although various painters of differing styles worked on the poster imagery over the years they were produced, the works all intriguingly display many shared aesthetic traits in their representations:
The paintings are always vast landscapes, be they beaches, seascapes, open skies, lakes, and mountain scenes. This still applies even when the paintings are designed for the portrait format.
They celebrate the physical icons of a place, be they the cottages, farms and stone bridges of the scenic British countryside, to the trawlers, sea-front houses, hotels, and piers of the seaside.
They do not focus on human subjects. People are often found in the images, but always looking out into the landscape, or acting within it, giving the affect that they are placeholders for us to fill.
They are quite impressionistic in style, creating a sense of hyperreality about the place we are seeing. Shape and colour have overall dominance (in a strikingly similar way to modern vector artwork) and the hues and tones are dramatised to become the rich blues and greens we associate with picturesque rural landscapes, and the saturated golds and purples that represent the bright sun and dense shade of a beautiful summer’s day.
To pull focus back to photography, it is clearly evident that our tourism images do not capture the places we visit in the same way as the British Railways posters did. Photography, by its very nature, does not glamourise its subjects like a constructed painting. It instead captures a 'truth' of the reality it is pointed at. For a sense of style or meaning to come through the images, the photographer themselves must first make those part of the reality they are capturing.
Constructing the 'perfect' or 'painterly' shot takes time and effort, and it is therefore no surprise that tourist photographers rarely shoot this way, and instead opt to celebrate the 'truth' or 'index' of the photographic format in its place. As a result of this, photographs (particularly those taken by tourists) generally celebrate the individual: snapshots of friends, family members, groups, or just yourself on holiday - and subsequently can only be 'read' by the individual or their close connections.
My aim with this project is to attempt to de-indexicalise my photographs of holiday activities by removing humans altogether and leaving behind just the icons of what makes a great holiday in that particular location. My hope is to open up my tourist images to be accessible to many people, as they can more naturally place themselves within the image instead of getting caught in the indexical net of attempting to fill in the blanks in the narrative of a stranger's holiday snaps.
Considering my intent to remove the subjects of the situation from the photographs I am planning to shoot, I found that my project has some similarities with the work of Paval Smejkal. In his Fatescapes series, Smejkal removes the central subjects from famous historical photographs, leaving us only with the backgrounds from which to ‘reconstruct’ the iconic images from in our minds. Although an interesting concept, it has been criticised by Geoff Dyer for being “devoid of the very things we were intended to look at - after we’ve got the point, solved the puzzle”. For the Fatescapes series to work, one must be clued in to the indexical contexts of the doctored pre-existing images, I feel this is where my project differs, as my constructions will represent a group imagining of what a perfect holiday scenario is or should be, and not be directly referring to any indexical context.
As my images require constructing instead of capturing, a fair amount of thought has been required to overcome some of the technical and logistical challenges posed. One of the first decisions I have made is to construct all of my frames face-on to their subjects, framed half to be half landscape and half sky with the horizon line running as parallel across the centre of the frame.
The photographs will be presented in the standard 4x6 format of the standard kodak print, and approximate ratio of the landscape Rail Poster paintings (see my attached mock-up of a railway poster for Corfe, featuring a holiday photo of my own).
I have also chosen to shoot on a legacy lens, my grandfather’s 35mm prime for his Olympus OM1 camera which adds a warmth of tone, and overall sharpness that really speak to the aesthetic I intend to create (see Peel Castle & Bay image below). It is also comfortably wide, to best reflect the vastness of the landscape without distorting it to fish-eye.