In the 15th century, you might have encountered an image once a day, once a year, once in lifetime, or not at all. Today, we are practically swimming in images. They're all around us. And because of this proliferation we take them as a given, natural occurrence.
For our culture, an image or picture is something that represents the way things are. This is particularly true in the way we view the photographic image. Photographs help us remember and describe the world, but mostly they allow us to see things that are not immediately in front of us.
Quite often, the original object is long gone, broken, faded, or eroded by time, but the photograph remains. Of course, the picture is also an object that can fade away. But it can always be reprinted and born again as a shiny, glossy surface that is a window to all our desires.
These desires are currently on view in a new exhibition at the George Eastman House entitled Site Seeing: Photographic Excursions in Tourism. The exhibit centers on photographic images and films that bring us closer to some faraway place --- either a place where we yearn to be or the one we've been to and want to continue revisiting through memories, aided by the photograph.
(So it's surprising that more people don't visit the George Eastman House --- the Mecca of Image. It's as if the sheer volume of images outside its walls precludes the need to see the image as a cultural artifact that tells us something about ourselves. The morning we visited it was like walking around a tomb.)
We should all go and see this exhibition. Besides seeing all those wonderful and exemplary images --- and there are many --- we begin to see how the images or pictures of site seeing have become a form of commodity that we buy, sell, and endlessly perpetuate.
Essentially, the actual site or place is that which we cannot possess. Or, at least, it is something that we cannot have as a whole. We cannot have Yosemite Valley but we may be able to have an Ansel Adams photograph of it, or a poster, a postcard, or even a book with more views of our favorite site. Or, we can take our own snapshot and remember the place as a fragmentary possession.
Roger Minick's photograph of the head of a woman overlooking Yosemite Valley while wearing a scarf with designs depicting the same scene of the Valley and "Yosemite" printed on it, epitomizes the irony of our desire to have the unattainable, of wanting to have what we can never have.
A point that is not made by this exhibit or, at least, not made overtly, is the idea that the actual site and its image are both commodities. And, like anything else in our culture, they're marketed and sold.
A photograph gives the illusion that somehow we can have what we seek. In this way, we buy our memories. This seems to be particularly true with tourist pictures, especially those images of exotic places like India, China, and the Middle East. Nineteenth-century photographs of China by John Thomson and of Egypt by Francis Frith present us with an exotic Orient, an Orient that has been constructed through the images, mythologies, and stereotypes brought forth by our own imagination.
The pictures exist as surfaces both literally and figuratively. As Edward Said once wrote, '[t]he Orient was almost a European invention, and has been since antiquity a place of romance, exotic beings, haunting memories and landscapes, remarkable experiences." Thus, by taking pictures or possessing an image, we get to relive our possession of those worlds that were never ours to begin with. Colonialism livesin tourism.
And, at the same time, the images of those Others are oddly, vaguely recognizable. That's what draws us in. So maybe we're just really trying to buy --- to possess --- ourselves, and it's the photograph that puts that self right into our hands.
These pictures, as one of the didactic statements at the exhibit points out, define our perception of the world. What follows, then, is that what we see and do is determined by what we already have seen through pictures.
In her book, Believing Is Seeing, Mary Anne Staniszewski points out that "[t]oday we live in a world where the image, the reproduction, is more powerful than the original... The movies and the mass media shape our expectations, our hopes, our dreams. These images and our life often mirror each other. These images reinforce our conventions about the way the world should be and the way things change and need to change some more."
That said, go to the George Eastman House and look at these images --- not as something we swim through everyday but as way to understand what we want.
Site Seeing: Photographic Excursions in Tourism is on display at the George Eastman House, 900 East Avenue, through Sept 5. Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday until 8 p.m., Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Tix: $8, $6 seniors, $5 students, $3 kids. 271-3362, www.eastman.org.