E-Project: A Study in Snapshots

January 3, 2011

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Corinne Vionnet

Each image in Corinne Vionent's "Photo Opportunities" is a compilation of the same landmark, taken from nearly identical angles, by 100 tourists. Here, the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

Wherever there are people on vacation, you will find someone taking a photograph. Corinne Vionnet, a fine-art photographer who shoots large-format landscapes, noticed this phenomenon when she and her husband visited Pisa, Italy, in 2005. They saw dozens of people photographing the Leaning Tower from the same grassy area in front of it, where legions of other snapshot and postcard shooters had photographed it for decades. “We tried to calculate how many people were taking a picture from the park,” Vionnet recalls. “From this, we did a rough estimation: That makes 50 people a day doing two pictures each. Then we thought about how many pictures that is in a month, or a year, and we realized that this is an impressive amount of pictures made of the Leaning Tower.”

When she returned home to Switzerland, she decided to check the Web to see if their estimates were correct. “I was really curious because people at that time already had digital cameras. So I was wondering if I could find these pictures on the Internet.” Photo-sharing sites like Flickr were still a new phenomenon, but by typing keywords like “Pisa” and “Leaning tower” into search engines in English and Italian, Vionnet immediately found thousands of photos of the landmark. “I became fascinated. At first I was excited, then I was scared that we were all taking the same kind of pictures, but they were all different moments,” she notes. “I thought about how to respond to the fact that we try to reproduce something that is in our collective memory.”

Her response was “Photo Opportunities,” a series of impressionistic images of monuments she made by blending hundreds of similar snapshots of famous sites like Monument Valley, the Eiffel Tower, Niagara Falls, and the portrait of Mao in Beijing’s Forbidden City into a single frame using Photoshop.

“Photo Opportunities” shows how ubiquitous photos are, and also explores the human impulse to document where we’ve been. Vionnet refuses to offer an explanation for this phenomenon, though she mentions her reading of French psychologist Serge Tisseron, who has noted that people need to prove to friends that they’ve traveled. “But Tisseron’s explanations are more complex than that,” Vionnet adds. Tisseron also speculates that in an age of speeded up travel, taking a photo “is a way to assimilate that you are there,” Vionnet explains. She then notes, “For me, doing the work is more to conjure up questions than to provide answers.”

She came upon her layering technique after months of experimenting with snapshots of Pisa and the Mona Lisa she downloaded from Web sites. Eventually, she began adjusting the transparency of the images in Photoshop, and then stacking them as layers, one atop the other. The image on the top layer appears more distinct, but the viewer can see all 100 images at once.

Vionnet has selected her subjects based on their popularity. “I use statistics,” she explains. She consulted data about the countries with the highest tourism, and got information from tourism organizations, either by contacting them or looking up their Web sites. She also visited travel agencies to find out what sites and monuments are most commonly shown in travel brochures and advertisements for tours. “I did a sort of visual research into the kind of monuments or famous places people were photographing,” she says. Vionnet observes that people usually photograph the places they’ve always wanted to see—but also visit sites that the travel brochures recommend as good photo opportunities.

Though there are many perspectives from which to photograph, for example, the Eiffel Tower, Vionnet selected the most common. Typically she starts by downloading 200 to 300 images, but narrows the selection to about 100 as she puts the layers together. The effect is painterly. The edges of monuments are blurred and jittery, Vionnet explains, because the elements in each photo do not line up exactly. “What still makes these pictures unique is that they are taken at different times of day, with different skies, and different people in the photo.”

When she has selected the downloaded images she wants to layer together, she uses one meeting point that all the images have in common, such as the frame of Mao’s portrait, and lines them up, but for the remainder of each frame, “it’s come what may,” she says. For example, in photos of Monument Valley, “There’s a kind of Kodak point where people make the pictures. Of the 100 pictures I used, they were amazingly taken the same way from the same point. Even so, lenses are different and the size of the picture on the Internet is different.”

Though the Photoshop-created images in “Photo Opportunities” seem more conceptual, Vionnet feels they are closely linked in meaning to her large-format landscapes, which explore how the natural world is changed by tourism and commerce. In one series of diptychs, for example, she juxtaposes her images of amusement parks, beach resorts and other areas for leisure activities with images of the surrounding countryside.

The biggest difference between “Photo Opportunities” and her other fine-art projects, of course, is that for “Photo Opportunities” she has appropriated images taken by others. She notes that shooting 100 of her own photos of landmarks would not have expressed what she hoped to accomplish. The photos she downloads are so transformed that it would be difficult for their creators to recognize them, and Vionnet says she does her best not to hurt the market for the images she uses. “There is a kind of collaboration, and I respect [the photographers] and their pictures. I’m using these images as my palette, my tools.”

“Photo Opportunities” was exhibited in November as part of Atlanta Celebrates Photography. The gallery that represents her work, The Empty Quarter in Dubai, showed some of the prints during Paris Photo, and Vionnet also entered the series in Photolucida’s Critical Mass competition where it was well received. The series has also garnered positive press from photography critics in Europe. Whenever she has been interviewed about the project, Vionnet is always asked the same question: Does she take snapshots when she’s on vacation? Yes, she replies. She still has the image of the Eiffel Tower she shot when she was 8. No doubt it bears a remarkable similarity to a few thousand other photos she’s found since.