Tourism and photography grew up together in the 19th century, and since then have been bound in codependency. The camera became the traveler's constant companion, while in the new metropolises, photographs of far-off places fed people's desire to be elsewhere. Contemporary artists have found this relation fertile ground for the exploration of transcendental homelessness and colonial power. This highly intelligent exhibition pairs 19th-century travel photography with works by artists from the 1970s onward to show that the Grand Tour remains locked in our imaginations.
Often, 19th-century photographs record criminal banalities of colonial occupation: a picture of "little slaves" (nine boys in woolen caps) by an unknown photographer in Zanzibar; a studio shot of a Tunisian woman with bare breasts, the warm sepia of her flesh an invitation. Some are oddly contrived, like Felice Beato's portraits of the severed heads of Japanese assassins, with their executioner poised as if to strike before a painted backdrop of Mount Fuji. Carelton Watkins's glorious Yosemite seems as stylized as contemporary photographer Arne Svenson's Luxor Hotel (a pyramid in Las Vegas), or Lynn Davis's recent pictures of desert ruins, miming the 19th century.
For some artists, the more you travel, the more things look depressingly familiar endless airport terminals and hotel rooms, images that fall flat (and are meant to). Others prove that the most exotic voyages are interior. The young Korean artist Nikki S. Lee infiltrates New York subcultures, imitating body language and sartorial habits, and photographing herself as a member of various minority communities. And in their series "German Indians," Andrea Robbins and Max Becher portray German devotees of Native American culture, who dress up in skins and feathers for weekends of nature worship in a tepee.
'The Cultured Tourist'
Leslie Tonkonow Gallery
601 West 26th Street
Through December 19
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