Tourism and Time
Egypt, Vera Lutter — Gagosian Gallery 12th April – 21st May 2011
Review by Stephen Bull
Pyramids and proof triangulate with photography throughout the past 150 years. From 1858-1860, Francis Frith published Egypt and Palestine Photographed and Described by Francis Frith, where the extraordinary architecture of Egypt was revealed to a Western audience, most of which were unable to take the luxurious Grand Tour that was soon to lead to the widespread culture of tourism. Those same viewers may have heard of the pyramids or seen drawings of them, but Frith’s photographs of the structures – foregrounds liberally sprinkled with posed Egyptians – apparently provided indisputable evidence of the pyramids’ existence.
Perhaps it was this early association between photographs of pyramids and proof that made the photograph on the front cover of the February 1982 issue of National Geographic so notorious. In a nascent example of digital manipulation, the magazine, despite its tradition of being associated with factual documentation, decided to ‘move’ two Egyptian pyramids closer together so that they fitted its portrait format. In this instance, the image of the pyramids came to represent the threat from digital technology to photographic proof that led to concerns about the death of photography over the following couple of decades.
Produced as a result of restrictions on her photography, Vera Lutter’s new series, Egypt, returns to an old, and partially prephotographic, technology for its manufacture. Apparently prohibited by the authorities from using any large format cameras in the country, Lutter resorted to turning a suitcase into a pinhole camera in order to photograph the sites. With the suitcase (itself a classic object of tourism) in hand, Lutter was able to make the photographs undetected by the authorities. In another link to objects related to tourism, each resulting image, shown in its original negative version in the Gagosian Gallery, takes on the dimensions of a postcard. Unlike Frith’s pictures of Egypt, however, Lutter’s photographs, with their necessarily long exposures, do not include a smattering of locals in their foregrounds. In fact, these deserts seem deserted.
At first, Lutter’s images appear only to show us the traditional tourist attractions of Egypt – pyramids, palm trees, the Sphinx – without the tourists themselves. It is also initially unclear whether the photographs, their tones reversed, were made during the day or night. With its apparent views of a pre-tourism Egypt combined with Lutter’s referencing of an appropriately pre-photographic technology, the series’ distortion of time goes further, suggesting a version of the country that could have been experienced at any time in the preceding millennia.
But then the tourists start to arrive. Like Omar Sharif’s gradual procession towards the viewer in the 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, the longer Lutter’s pictures are looked at, the more human life shimmers into view. In Pyramids, Giza: April 12, 2010, three elongated, ghostly figures cross the sands between two pyramids. After a while it becomes clearer: these are camels and their riders. (Or is it one camel with one rider that has been caught in Lutter’s long exposure as it paused in three places?) What starts off as haze in the landscape reminiscent of Lawrence of Arabia turns into a group resembling the camel-conveyed cast of Sex and the City 2 trekking the tourist trail.
Once spotted, tourists keep popping up everywhere. A congregation half-fill Kom Ombo Temple: January 26, 2010, for example, as they read the signs that tell them the history of the temple and gaze up at the site itself, lingering long enough to have registered in Lutter’s image. Elsewhere, it is elements such as the loudspeaker in Medium Pyramid: April 20, 2010, or the modern city that lurks over the horizon and the tracks of 4x4s in the sand dunes in Chephren and Cheops Pyramids, Giza: April 12, 2010, that – along with their revealingly precise titles – date the photographs firmly within contemporary times. Although the TARDIS-like box in Bent Pyramid, Dahshur: January 30, 2010, with its suggestion of the ‘smothering little tent’ inside which Frith made his own photographs in the 1850s, hints that Lutter’s images still contain an aspect of time travel.
You can hardly move for tourists in the overcrowded Sphinx, Giza: April 13, 2010. Some of the spectral sightseers are on a pathway to the right, beyond which the Sphinx can be viewed; many more of them sit on a wall to the left. And then the man on the far left looms onto the scene, filling at least one-fifth of the photograph. A classic vacationer, he stands with camera phone at arms length, apparently having stayed stationery for some time so as to document the distant pyramids and Sphinx. This tourist’s digital image of Egypt may well have been on Facebook, as proof that he had seen the sights, before Lutter’s long exposure was even complete. Despite its differences, Sphinx, Giza: April 13, 2010 recalls another series of photographs where pyramids recur, Martin Parr’s Small World, first published in 1995, where tourists are the attraction as Parr focuses his camera on the sightseers that get in the way of the viewer, rather than the sites. In many of Lutter’s photographs, the phantom visitors, or their paraphernalia, also become central to the scene. Despite the longevity of its existence, the distant pyramid in Sphinx, Giza: April 13, 2010 is dark and ethereal, while the tourists seem increasingly solid.
Arguably, without photography there would be no mass tourism, and tourism was a central platform from which photography was first mass-marketed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Lutter’s images from Egypt use an early form of photography that links with the pre-photographic era of the camera obscura. They also seem, initially at least, to return the viewer to an era pre-tourism. But within a short space of time, these apparently unpopulated spaces fill with tourists, becoming a land of photo opportunities.