Throwback Thursday

Tourists through the years: A fascinating peek at sightseers

Marnie Hunter, CNNUpdated 2nd April 2017
(CNN) — They sport leisure suits and pink rompers, cowboy hats, logo T-shirts and blue checked pants. They tote cameras and binoculars, and they want photographic proof that they've been where they say they've been.
American photographer Roger Minick calls the genus "Sightseer Americanus."
In the early 1980s, Minick captured a cross-section of tourists across the United States in his Sightseer series, a project he picked up again in the late 1990s and 2000. The determined sightseers' fashion choices, delicious throwbacks for today's viewer, were a big part of what drew Minick to his subjects.
"I'd be at a great distance at an overlook, and I'd see a couple arrive, get out of their car. And before I saw them or their faces, I would see what they were wearing, their colors, and I would be drawn to them for that reason," said Minick, 72, who's based in Danville, California.
Those colors were missing the first time he set out to document tourists crisscrossing the American West to soak up the country's vast national parks and wide-open landscapes.
In 1979, he shot in black and white. That was a mistake "because the colors are so interesting, the juxtaposition of what people wear and the backgrounds."
So the next year he retraced his steps, this time in color.

A time capsule

Minick's interest in photographing sightseers was piqued in 1976 while he was teaching at an Ansel Adams workshop at Yosemite National Park. Teaching alongside the legendary landscape photographer, Minick noticed how visitors arriving by the bus- and RV-load would elbow through the crowd of student photographers to take smiling snapshots in front of the dramatic scenery.
"And that became more interesting to me than taking the classic photograph of Yosemite Valley, which had been done a gazillion times before that," Minick said. "So I became more interested in them. And then I started to look at the people closely and their faces and the way they were dressed, and I thought, 'Wow, this is pretty unique.'"
Inspired by the classic snapshot -- that proof-of-visit required by many travelers -- Minick set out to create a time capsule that would become more interesting as the years passed. But he wanted the photographs to bear his own artistic stamp.
"If I was truly doing the snapshot, I would have photographed them usually in the first few seconds as they presented themselves, often with a big cheesy smile," he said. "I think that's where I departed and I wanted to transcend that and show people maybe in a more vulnerable ... or what I see as a more neutral expression."
He took a little bit more time, although rarely more than a few minutes, to find a moment that worked.

Changing times

According to his field notes on the project, Minick wanted to explore what motivated people "at great expense of time, money and effort, to visit these far-off places of wonder and curiosity."
Overall, their motivations were good.
"Certainly there is the gross aspect of tourism ... the big Winnebagos, and American tourists can be loud and noisy and carry on and all that, but I think for the most part my sense was that people really did appreciate these places that they went to on some level," he said.
That appreciation is still there, Minick finds, but the contemporary selfie culture has shifted the landscape. "There is a kind of frenetic running around, more so than I remember back in the 1980s," he said.
Yet despite today's photo frenzy, there's still time to pause and look back at vacationers past.