Quite by chance, my interest in sightseers and sightseeing began back in 1976 when I was invited to teach at an Ansel Adams workshop in Yosemite. I remember how all the students would gather at the famous Inspiration Point overlook, line up with their cameras and tripods poised, waiting for the magical moment when the grand man himself would move along the line giving his blessing to each student's composition and exposure. With each blessing there would follow a cacophony of activity and clicking shutters, and of course, the students ended up with nearly identical views.

Meanwhile, something else was happening that caught my attention: waves of tourists were continually arriving at the parking lot in cars, buses, motorhomes, and would wrestle their way through this gaunlet of photographers for a momentary look and the obligatory snapshot of themselves before the famous overlook. After witnessing similar encounters over several days, I found myself becoming more and more fascinated with the tourists, realizing what a wealth of portrait material these curious visitors were. I began to see the visitors as having a specific identity, their own classification, a genus, if you will -- sightseer Americanus. Because like most people, I had previously paid little attention to sightseers, had taken them so much for granted, my sudden interest in sightseers and all their trappings -- from behemoth motorhomes and over-heated tour buses, to matching shirts and tons of camera and video gear hanging around their necks -- caught me completely off guard. When I paid closer attention it seemed to me that this "sub-classification" of people spoke of something extraordinarily alive and vibrant, something uniquely American, as if you could feel the very pulse of a nation at these well-worn American overlooks.

Three years later, in 1979, with these impressions still buzzing in my mind, I set out with my wife Joyce in our VW camper on a swing around the Western United States, to see whether I could turn my feelings and ideas about sightseers into a project. During that first trip I photographed in black and white, and when I returned, developed the film and made prints, I realized something was missing. While I liked many of the black and white prints from that trip, they generally seemed too somber for what I was feeling. I suspected color film would better capture the lively and often outlandish colors and dress I was seeing at the overlooks. I also felt that the portrait backgrounds -- the grand vistas and landscapes -- would become more alive in color than they had in black and white, would take on an almost super-real aspect in contrast with the people, creating a more compelling overall statement. The following year we retraced our journeys and, this time working in color, I was pleased to discover that my hunch had been correct. The subdued quality of black and white images was now replaced with vitality and humor, the ironic intermix of people and places I'd witnessed in person coming alive in the prints.

During the years I worked on the sightseer project I developed a particular way of working. I would hang out for long hours at the overlooks, sometimes as long as six hours at a single overlook, observing people, the surroundings, looking for that particular elusive "something" that constituted a good image. Sometimes it was the clothing people wore, other times it was their method of travel and what they brought with them: cameras, cell phones, pets, strollers, radios, TV's -- all the comforts they were used to back home. Sometimes I was attracted to the interaction within a group, noticing for instance, though my study wasnt scientific, that the better color-coordinated a couple or group was, the better they got along. Many times, like an interloper, I would come onto family members or groups that were already making their obligatory document of their visit and offer to take a picture with their camera so everyone could be included. Then, as I handed back their camera, I would take a hopeful breath and ask if I could take a picture of them with my own camera, explaining I was at work on a project on sightseers, exploring how "we" look today, how I was fascinated with the American pastime of sightseeing. I would point at the extra camera around my neck, an SX-70 and offer them a Polaroid, an immediate picture they could take with them. I was rarely turned down.

As to posing, I generally did very little other than simply ask people to stand here or there and look at the camera; I felt the power and information of the images would be most effective if I photographed people in straight-forward a fashion as possible. Always aware of how the people were or weren't "working" with the background, I would position myself as I felt the composition required, rather than having the people move. For flexibility, I used a handheld camera, never a tripod, and because I was myself playing off the idea of the tourist snapshot, I tried to incorporated as much as possible the raw innocence of the snapshot in the way I framed and caught the moment.

 

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