Corinne Vionnet’s Photo Opportunities at Wm Turner Gallery is a show that could be laden down with tourism-studies theory on the one hand, or dismissed on the other by dilettantes with an airy “I could have done that.” Both responses to this remarkable body of work would, of course, be utterly wrong.
These painterly photographs of familiar tourist sites (and sights) prove that we tend to see what we’ve been told to see, from the only position in which it’s possible to see it that way. The French photographer conceived the show when she noticed that there was only one location from which to adequately photograph the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Thus, nearly everyone jockeyed for position to shoot the tower from exactly the same spot. (From one side, the tower can’t be captured well; from two other sides, it looks like it isn’t leaning. Those latter perspectives of the Unleaning Tower are the photographs I’d like to see.)
What would happen if these thousands of near-identical snapshots were overlaid one over another? In the era of publicly available images on the internet, it was easy enough to find out.
This is where the “I could do that” comes in. Photoshop-savvy readers can test Vionnet’s concept this way: Pull a hundred or so photos of, say, the Taj Mahal off the web and reduce the settings down to 10-15-percent transparency as you layer them. Then see what the result looks like. Those who try this exercise will likely appreciate Vionnet’s brilliance in creating these strange, haunting images.
In one of her compositions, the distant Mount Fuji glows like an image from a Hokusai print, while a swarm of ghostly, hypothetical foregrounds float dimly in the image’s lower third, creating a dream-like gestalt of all the Japans that Fuji has symbolized. The similarly monumental Mount Rushmore, on the other hand, comes into sharp focus on the head of George Washington, while the remainder of the mountain floats into an Impressionist haze, over a jittery foreground filled with a spectral population of transient viewers.
In other words, though a part of the series’ spectacular success is due to chance, most of it is not. Yes, it’s true that the imagery may owes its existence to various happy accidents in which tourists photograph a scene while standing in one another’s footprints, producing the standard image of the standard tourist destination. But Vionnet’s selection and composition is anything but random.
On the other hand, if the tourists’ photographs were not so extraordinarily similar in the first place, it wouldn’t be possible for Vionnet to produce the effects that she does. The angles vary just enough to create the blur at the edges.
If tourists tried to capture the Eiffel Tower from more inventive angles, the memorably poetic straight-on image in this exhibition wouldn’t be possible. The evidence here suggests, for example, that there are no more than four standard ways of photographing the Eiffel Tower (two ways of looking straight up from beneath, one from the pavilion of the Palais de Chaillot, and one from the gardens on the opposite side). Vionnet has composited versions of the picture-postcard one, too. (The upward-looking views are the art-photographer versions, and they are seen frequently in student exhibitions as well as in museum shows.)
Dutch windmills might seem like a cheap shot, since the turning blades automatically provide an atmospheric blur when photos are overlaid. But the most famous windmill of them all appears here in near-pristine focus, with its crisply outlined blades defining a full circle thanks to Vionnet’s artful overlays. Shutter speeds outpace slow windmill blades, and it requires multiple exposures from many cameras to imply rotation.
This brilliant and haunting exhibition is the final offering from Wm Turner Gallery—which opened at the very moment of the September 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers with a solo exhibition presciently titled The End of the World. David Turner has struggled against the odds to present a varied and vigorous exhibition program, and what would have been his upcoming schedule for 2011 deserves to find a venue elsewhere.
Wm Turner Gallery‘s final exhibition, Photo Opportunities by Corrinne Vionnet, will come down temporary during Hindsight, a one-night-only exhibition by Kathryn Hartmann, Katie Stover, and Hollie Thompson, opening Saturday, November 6. Photo Opportunities will then continue through November 27.