My interest in photographing sightseers began back in 1976 when I was invited to teach at the Ansel Adams workshops in Yosemite National Park. I vividly remember how all the photography students would gather at the famous Inspiration Point overlook, get into position with their cameras mounted to tripods and wait for the grand man himself to move along the line, bestowing his blessings on each student’s composition and choice of exposure. A cacophony of clicking shutters would then follow, with the result, of course, that all the students ended up making nearly identical images. It wasn’t long, however, before I became aware of something else going on at the overlook: waves of tourists were continually arriving at the overlook’s parking lot in cars, buses and motorhomes, thrusting their way through this gauntlet of photographers not only for a clear view of the famous vista but also for the obligatory snapshot of themselves proving they were there. After witnessing this recurring bit of theater over several days, I found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these visitors, recognizing what a striking cross section of humanity they were. I began to see the visitors as having a specific humanity, their own classification, a genus—Sightseer Americanus. Previously in my photographic career, when my projects took me into the landscape, I had tended to look on sightseers with disdain; certainly I had never considered them a “subject” I would want to photograph seriously. Yet over the course of those days, I began to feel I was witnessing something uniquely American, something that I suddenly very much wanted to photograph.
Throughout my hours of driving and time spent at hundreds of overlooks—from Old Faithful Geyser to the rim of the Grand Canyon, from Niagara Falls to the St. Louis Arch, from the Crazy Horse Memorial to the World Trade Center, from the Alamo to the Washington Mall—there was one question that continued to press upon me for an answer. What was it that motivated people, by the hundreds of thousands, at great expense of time, money and effort, to visit these far-off places of wonder and curiosity? I must confess that there were times in my travels, squeezed elbow-to-elbow with my fellow travelers, that I viewed their presence at the overlooks as nothing more than another example of mindless, boorish behavior. I thought they were there simply to get their pictures taken as quickly as possible, the one tangible validation of their trip, and then head on to the next overlook, the next campground, motel, bus stop, then home—the experience at any one of the dozens of overlooks remembered only later through a snapshot they barely recalled taking.
But in the end, I came to believe that there was something more meaningful going on—something stronger and more compelling, something that seemed almost woven into the fabric of the American psyche. I witnessed this most dramatically when I watched first-timers arrive at a particularly spectacular overlook and see their expressions become instantly awestruck at this, their first sighting of some iconic beauty or curiosity or wonder. After seeing this happen innumerable times, I began to compare what I was seeing to religious pilgrimages, where the pilgrims are not just making a trip to make a trip, or simply to return home with some tangible piece of evidence that they were there—the snapshot; they have instead come seeking something deeper, beyond themselves, and are finding it in this moment of visitation. For, as with all pilgrimages, they have made the journey, they have arrived and they are now experiencing the quickening sense of recognition and affirmation, that universal sense of a shared past and present, and, with any luck, a shared future.
Roger Minick is an American photographer, photographing in the US and Europe for more than 50 years. He is a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship.