Of People and Places (Part 3)

This strange relationship I have with places (as described in part 1 and part 2) is reflected in much of the photography I do. My black and white work from the late 1980s and early 90s, for example, is all about places. In most cases to the complete exclusion of people.

Travellers often say that that the thing they enjoy most about their voyages is the people they meet. I too enjoy meeting people when I travel, but the best part about being somewhere remains, for me, the simple fact of being there.

People are transient, but places endure. Arguably, it is the people who make the place. But the ghosts and myths of that place reside in the bricks and mortar, in the trees and utility poles, and in the walls and doors. If I photograph a street vendor in Rome, that is, to me, a photograph of a street vendor. I will rarely iconify an individual. But when I photograph a curving street with its old stone paving and houses of crumbling dusty orange, I feel I am photographing not just the physical structures, but the embodiment of every person who has ever lived on or visited that street, along with their stories and memories.

Few will agree with that view of the world, and that’s fine by me. I envy those who can visit a place and immediately strike up a friendship with its people. That is not so easy for me to do. I tend to keep to myself, to stay quietly in the background.

This is part of the reason why I have generally failed as a travel writer. My attempts in that field have always been very internally focused – accounts of what I saw and felt and imagined. There are almost no people in my travel stories, and that makes them less entertaining, perhaps downright boring. It’s ironic, in that I often enjoy the “people” aspect of other people’s travel stories – books like Karen Connelly’s One Room in a Castle or the Best American Travel Writing series from Houghton Mifflin are full of colorful and interesting people. But they are also full of excellent internal journeys brought about by the external ones.

Regardless, when I photograph or write about a place, I go for what moves me, for what triggers my sense of mythology. For me, that means the place itself, not so much its people. For this reason, I am doomed to eternal failure. Fortunately I have a day job.

(Of People and Places, Part 1 and Part 2.)

2 thoughts on “Of People and Places (Part 3)

  1. In describing what you do and what you don’t do in reference to the skills of a travel writer… I think you’ve pretty much broken down the multiple roles and responsibilities as I understand them in many travel guides I’ve read.

    Often there are several contributers both for the editorial content and for the photography. Each has there own area of expertise. If you’re focused on what moves you, I’d expect you’re doing what you do best. I think that’s enough.

    BTW, I like the “mythology” reference in this ongoing piece. It speaks of what I am motivated by when I travel. Some of the mythology I draw from is a little lacking in timelessness… My next trek under the guise of a fall-foliage tour of VT and NH is actually an excuse to visit the locations that were used during the opening credits of the Newhart Show (the one where he played an Inn Keeper in what was referenced as northern New York.) It is a ficticious place, but the images are no less real (to me). The Inn is actually in East Middlebury, VT and the rest of the footage was shot on Squam Lake, NH. and the adjoining village of East Sandwich. The footage was not show specific. It was extra film from the movie “On Golden Pond” that was laying around. That opening sequence epitomized what I’d expect of New England in the fall . I specifically want to reshoot the views. The people and their pictures are secondary. Perhaps I’ll have to bring along Larry, Daryll and his other brother Daryll to get the full-picture… Harry

  2. Heh heh. Hey, if you ask me, Larry, Darryl, and Darryl are perfectly legitimate mythological creatures!

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