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A Visual Cultural Study of Snapshot Photography, Landscape, and Tourism in the Contemporary American West

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Shadows and Reflections:
Locating Myself in my Own Pictures

While my pictures of tourists looking at me looking at them are spontaneously reflexive photographs, my more practiced photographs of shadows and reflections are also intended to locate myself as they quote a multilayered reflexivity.

A reflection that occurs in the landscape in existing lakes or even in constructed reflecting pools shows us a "natural" representation of a framed landscape. As W. J. T. Mitchell argues, a reflection is attractive to the romantic landscape aesthetic because it is "a trace or icon of nature in nature itself [that] exhibits Nature representing itself to itself, displaying an identity of the Real and the Imaginary that certifies the reality of our own images."

Reflections of the landscape in distinctly cultural structures like Visitor Center windows or automobile windows and mirrors, however, move the signification out of the realm of natural representations and into overtly cultural ones.

A photograph of Monument Valley reflected in a framed window refers not only to the landmasses themselves but also to the general cultural history of their framed representation in movies, landscape photography, and postcards. When my body is also reflected in that window, the photograph then also refers to a specific act of cultural representation made at a specific space in time by a specific person who is inseparable from the representation that is rendered.

We have learned that if we see our shadow in the viewfinder of our cameras, we should try to find a different angle. The paradox there is that if you want to make pictures according to the dominant touristic aesthetic--that is, with a brightly lit, clearly focused image--you want the sun behind you in order to light the frame. But if you are photographing either in the early morning or in the late afternoon, that means your shadow is cast ahead of you towards your object of attention, which is an amateur photography faux pas. Here, I have purposely included my shadow in several of my photographs because I see my literal shadow as a metaphorical shadow of my presence cast into the frame of the photograph.

An image of the photographer in the act of photographing--in reflections, shadows, etc.--connects the subject matter of the photograph to the person who took the photograph. Thus we know that the photographer plays an important, if barely visible (only literally seen in traces such as reflected images, shadows, etc.) role in shaping this particular production of meanings. In this regard, it is important that we cannot see the photographer's full face in the window reflection--the camera eclipses her or his face, substituting a visual technology for the most distinctive representation of her or his subjectivity, the eyes.

This focus on the photographer's vision or visual technology, however, does not obscure the fact that both a photographer and a person actually interacted with photographic subjects at a particular intersection of space and time. Not only does my use of framing, syntax, and use of text build connotations into the photographs, but also my physical presence in the scenes I photographed implicitly affected and effected the actual postures and poses of the figures I photographed, further affecting the connotations that the photographs contain

One of the things that the photos here denote is that they represent real encounters with real people in their "natural habitat," which suggests a question: Is there a direct relationship between the photographer's physical presence and the subject's actions?

In my own case I can offer a partial answer. In my attempt to produce pictures of tourists "acting naturally," I tried to be as unobtrusive as possible when I took people's pictures at overlooks. Invariably, however, my "unnatural" attention to their "natural" actions frequently called attention to myself.

In most cases, my presence at the overlooks--especially at smaller and crowded ones--understandably made some of the people there act as if they were self-conscious about having their picture taken by a stranger.

Often people who noticed me seemed to assume that they were obscuring my view of the landscape, so they would try to get out of my way. When I waved them off, telling them that they weren't in my way at all, they looked at me puzzled for a moment before returning to their activities. They usually kept a suspicious eye on me for the rest of the time they were at the overlook, however.

If there was a party of people there with only one person taking the pictures, the people standing beside the photographer would often notice me and admonish their snapshooting companions for taking too long to take their pictures and violating the etiquette of appropriate overlook turn-taking.

Occasionally, a person would be intrigued by my actions enough to engage me in conversation. They usually assumed that I either worked for the Park Service or was a photojournalist doing a story on park overcrowding. The researcher in me wanted to use such conversations as impromptu interviews, and the teacher in me wanted to take such conversations as opportunities for showing people what I was learning to see, but the tourist in me knew that there is little room within overlook etiquette for extensive interaction between tourists who do not know each other. When I explained what I was actually doing to an unusually friendly fellow tourist, they did seem to be consciously considering (however briefly) a different, more complicated, less "common sense," approach to interacting with the same landscapes they appeared to know what to do with.

My photographs and my analysis are intended to have the same initial effect on my readers that my presence at overlooks seemed to have on my fellow tourists. But those effects need to be extended. Because I now have your eyes and ears for longer than I ever did with the tourists at the sites, I hope I that I am making my approach make more sense to you now than I could then to them.

Design, Photography, and Text © 2001 by Bob Bednar

Department of Communication
Southwestern University
Georgetown, Texas 78626
vox: (512) 863-1440

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Monument Valley Snapshot Semiotics Icon
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A Visual Cultural Study of Snapshot Photography, Landscape, and Tourism in the Contemporary American West

Scenic View Portfolio Icon