Interview first appeared in UCDA’s Designer magazine (Vol. 33, Issue 2, Summer 2008)
We travel, we see a monument, and we take a picture. But we are millions of travelers, millions who see this monument, and millions who take the same picture.
Following a simple search on the web, Swiss artist Corinne Vionnet looked at this collection of snapshots, almost identical images produced by these anonymous tourists, and selected her favorites. By bringing together successive layers of about 50 photo souvenirs, she has created powerful “we were there” symbols of collective memory.
Corinne Vionnet created a series of photographic works, entitled Photo Opportunities, from hundreds of snapshots of tourist locations, which she found on the internet.
Q: How did you get the idea for Photo Opportunities?
A: This idea came from a trip with my husband to Pisa. He was going there for his work and we decided to stay over the weekend.
My photographic work is increasingly aimed at exploring signs of sociological behavior in society, looking at the representation and memory of spaces. Also, I am interested in understanding the complex association between tourism and visual culture. So I was pleased to be able to see this well-known symbol, which I had in fact seen when I was a child, and observe my own reaction and the reactions of other tourists in front this famous tower. Due to the unique way it leans, the Tower of Pisa can only be photographed from two specific vantage points. One does not have enough space to get the entire tower in the picture, so there is really only one spot from which these pictures can be taken.
Once facing the Tower of Pisa, I observed tourists taking their souvenir pictures. I have done some rough calculations on how many photographs are taken of the tower per day, per month and per year. It is an impressive number! This phenomenon existed before digital cameras. But now, with digital cameras and the internet, everyone can easily show their pictures to friends and other visitors by placing their images on an online photo-sharing website.
Once back home, I checked to see what I could find on the image search engines, using the simple keywords “pisa” or “leaning tower,” and hundreds of Leaning Towers passed before my eyes. I was sincerely impressed and became very enthusiastic. I then looked for other monuments and symbolic places, and this is how this work began.
Above left: Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Above right: The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California.
Q: Can you tell me about the process of producing the series? How did you collect the images and how did you process them?
A: The idea took some time. I had the motivation and the material, but I didn’t yet know how to express what I wanted with this multitude of similar images. I am cautious about manipulating images. I also wanted this work to have a link to classic painting and etching, as they too have contributed to our knowledge of landscape and monuments.
For each place, I collected between 200 and 300 similar images, first through search engines and then on photo-sharing websites. The search was based on single keywords for the monument name and/or location. From there, I used hundreds of photos with transparent effects to obtain this final result. For each image, only a part of the monument is chosen to link the hundreds of images—usually a segment that I find important or where there is the greatest similarity amongst the photographs. Taking the example of the Forbidden City in Beijing, the portrait of Mao is used as a meeting point for all the photographs. As for the rest of the image: come what may!
Q: Do you feel that you have created new works of your own, or do you feel you have collaborated with the people who took the snapshots?
A: This work is intrinsically linked to the people who took these pictures. The collaboration is obvious, but it is without their knowledge. These pictures are on the internet, to be seen by any eventual visitors. I am just one of those visitors. It is the sheer quantity of these almost identical pictures that gave me the idea of superimposing them. I do not think I would have had the idea if I had made all these pictures of the same places myself. Anyway, the work would loose its meaning.
Q: Did you ever visit and photograph these places yourself?
A: Yes, of course! I received my very first camera at the age of eight. I had the opportunity around that age to visit the Leaning Tower, the Eiffel Tower, and the Acropolis. I still have those photographs today!
Left: The Atomium in Brussels, Belgium. Center: Leaning Tower of Pisa in Tuscany, Italy. Right top: Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. Right bottom: CN Tower in Toronto, Ontario.
Q: The places you have used are all in our collective memories. Why do you think we (still) have to take pictures of them when we visit such places?
A: Since its emergence, photography has been used to identify and take inventory of the buildings, as well as make monuments famous, turning them into symbols. These monument symbols motivate the desire to travel to see them. It is often a long trip to visit Paris, for example, just to see the Eiffel Tower or the Mona Lisa. It is possible that there will not be another opportunity to return.
We are looking at a monument that we somehow already know. As a part of knowing that we have also been there, we need the photograph to fix the memory of our visit. By pressing the shutter button, time becomes event, a unique moment. The significance of the representation of the subject is shifted to the presence of the photographers themselves.
The images made by tourists are picture imitations. They demonstrate the desire to produce a photograph of an image that already exists, one like those we have already seen. It is in fact a style of manipulating the viewer. Why do we always take the same picture, if not to interact with what already exists? The photograph proves our presence. And to be true, the picture will be perfectly consistent with the pictures in our collective memory.
Q: What are the dimensions of the finished works?
A: The finished works are 30x40cm. For my portfolio of “photo opportunities” I sent myself postcards through a system offered by the postal service. It is possible to use their website to make images printed as postcards and then send them by snail mail. During an exhibition, I would love to offer visitors this opportunity to send postcards this way.
Q: What is your background as an artist and photographer?
A: I studied photography for a year at the Paris VIII University and continued on as an autodidact. Since 2004, I have had much more time for my personal work. Last year, I won a grant, which has really helped me concentrate on my various works. These are really precious moments.
Above left: Niagara Falls. Above right: Alhambra, Court of the Lions in Granada, Spain.