Posted by Jessie Wender

This week’s “Journeys” issue had me thinking about tourist destinations in the United States—and the photographers who’ve captured them while exploring the idea of sightseeing…

Roger Minick began photographing sightseers in the nineteen-seventies while teaching at the Ansel Adams Workshops in Yosemite National Park. He recalls a “cacophony of clicking shutters,” as the students photographed from Inspiration Point. “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 motor homes—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 repeating bit of theatre at several overlooks over the next several days, I found myself becoming more interested in the people arriving at the overlooks than the surrounding landscape. Previously, I had tended to look on sightseers with disdain, and certainly had never considered them a ‘subject’ I would want to photograph seriously, but something about what I was witnessing made me realize here was a fascinating cross-section of people engaging in a uniquely American activity, and it was something that I now suddenly very much wanted to photograph.”


S I G H T S E E R  S E R I E S
Exhibition at Jan Kesner Gallery, 1997

Reviewed by David Pagel
LOS ANGELES TIMES, 14 March 1997

 A Bigger Picture of Middle-Class America

In Roger Minick’s well-known color photographs of tourists visiting national parks and monuments in the western United States, seemingly insignificant details alert viewers to a lurking sense of discomfort.

As vacationing families, couples and individuals pose before scenic overlooks and grand vistas, a single clenched fist, a pair of down-turned eyes or the slump of someone’s shoulders reveals that the people in these pictures are not gullible victims of some omnipotent tourist industry. Instead, they are self-conscious participants in a drama that’s much bigger than any of them.

Most of Minick’s 23 prints at Jan Kesner Gallery depict middle-class Americans standing on walkways before expansive valleys, breathtaking mountain ranges and crystal-clear lakes. Made in 1980 and 1981 at such meccas as Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, these meticulously crafted images document the diversity of a group that’s often dismissed for being blandly homogeneous.

Through Minick’s lens, middle-class Americans constitute a pretty goofy group of individuals who would be bona fide eccentrics if they were not all uniformly dwarfed by their majestic surroundings. Included are smiling retirees who look like they’ve just stepped from gas-guzzling mobile homes, gangly adolescents with bare midriffs, suburban dad wearing striped shirts and plaid shorts and weary families whose dirty jeans suggest that they’re fresh off the farm.

Although Minick’s pictures don’t survey the extremes of the economic spectrum, they show that middle-class Americans come in all shapes and sizes, are driven by a variety of tastes and desires and possess a wide range of disposable incomes. Like Bill Owens’ black-and-white photos from the 1960s and 1970s, Minick’s anonymous portraits attest to the weirdness at the center of American culture. They vividly demonstrate that no one really fits into the stereotype that is meant to represent them.

Minick intensifies this sense of not fitting in by almost always aiming his camera at a downward angle and by crowding his subjects up against the protective fences that surround scenic overlooks. Though edgy and pointed, his photographs never buy into the simple-minded idea that nature is good and that culture, its opposite, is bad.

Instead, these supple works use the discomfort most people feel when confronted by nature’s inhuman scale as a metaphor for the precariousness of culture in a democratic society. Awkward and uncertain, sometimes fun and at other times frightening, this quiet anxiety is a big part of these pictures’ power.


Exhibition at Grapestake Gallery, 1981

Review by Thomas Albright

Notes From the Galleries:

The cliche tourist snapshot is one of the most potent of contemporary icons, at once document, memorial and fetish object, as well as one of the most commonplace, conspicuous examples of the displacement of the raw experience of “reality” by its photographic image.

In Roger Minick’s “Sightseer”, at the Grapestake Gallery, 2876 California, it becomes the take-off point for a series of brilliant, often hilarious, photographic satires.  In many cases, Minick has simply taken ordinary tourist photographs––approached people at various tourist sites and requested them to pose; lined them up like so many Duane Hansen sculptures in front of Crater Lake, Grand Canyon or the Yellowstone Geysers, looking–- or squinting––directly into the camera, and snapped away.

But the enlargement and hard-edged clarity of the prints, abetted by Minick’s use of flash; the occasional use of color, almost always to the most telling effect––the garish feathers of a tourist-shop Indian headdress, gaudy his-and-her matching print shirts; the very impersonality of the relationship between photographer and subject––deprive these pictures of the snapshot’s customary intimacy and warmth.  They expose all the blemishes and flab; the self-consciousness, the awkwardness, the smugness in the face of the camera’s capacity for conferring immortality; the basic ridiculousness of the subjects, with the clinical coldness of August Sander or Diane Arbus at their most intense.

In some pictures, the satire works on several levels––a group portrait in front of Mt. Rushmore, the carved faces which appear on a shopping bag that one of the party is carrying.

Sometimes, Minick photographs tourists taking photographs; in other pictures––a glittery silver trailer parked next to the rich bark of pine trees––the satire is couched in more formal terms.  A series like this is virtually a sure shot, and therefore a rather cheap one, but it hits its mark––at once somewhat cruel, somewhat sad, and very funny––and much like life.