With her impressionist views of popular cultural landmarks, Corinne Vionnet presents a collective vision of the Tourist. These images from her series, Photo Opportunities, are composed of hundreds of snapshots found on the web, and are carefully combined to represent communal ideas of well-known tourist destinations.
Gregory Jones: First off Corinne, tell us about how you became involved in photography, and who were some of your early influences?
Corinne Vionnet: The decision to begin working with photography at the age of 35 was rather spontaneous. However, photography was always present in my family– I received my first camera when I was 8. My father was regularly drawing and painting while I was growing up. He was an architect with a passion for geography, and he shared much of that knowledge with us. If I try to look for an explanation for the path I took, I guess I can find it there.
As for my early influences? I’m delighted that you don’t specify “in photography”! I have the impression that I have been nourished by images since before I can remember. My parents used to have all sorts of books: books of paintings, architecture, botanical and scientific illustrations. I was passionate about these books.
Today, I continue to discover with much enthusiasm books, old dictionaries, geographic maps, and old photograph albums that I find at flea markets. These inspire me in many ways. The first photography book I received was Once (Une Fois) by Wim Wenders, and I know that it influenced my decision to explore photography. I’m also a big fan of the amazing work of Chris Ware, and the architecture of Peter Zumthor. But influences can come in any form, discussion with friends for example, or a conversation on a train, or traveling…
GJ: Your project, Photo Opportunities, is made up of tourist snapshots found on the web. Please talk a bit about your process. How do you choose your source pictures, and what methods do you use to create these finished pieces?
CV: I’m not interested in digital manipulation, but in how images are disseminated online. The process is only one of the steps to reach what we want to express. But here are a few explanations:
I thought the best way to translate my questions about our collective memory was to layer a multitude of these snapshots, which were found on the Internet, with a transparency effect. For one image, I looked at thousands of images of the same place, to try to see and understand what shape that monument or place most often took. I collected different images that I wanted to layer together: day, night, different seasons, different skies, etc. I chose a single segment of the landscape that I found important as a meeting point to line the images up. The rest came together on its own.
My choice of places were at first based on tourist statistics, I also examined travel agency brochures to get a sense of what images symbolized a particular destination. I didn’t work in a systematic way, I used the photos as a sort of palette to achieve an impressionistic image. The style remains a personal form of interpretation for me; it also shows my own visual culture.
GJ: You specifically chose to depict tourist destinations as your subject matter. Given the countless choices of cultural iconography, including brands and logos, celebrities, clothing styles, etc.. why these physical structures? How did you get started with this project?
CV: Yes, you’re right! It could be other cultural iconography, and it seems like the choices are infinite! But this subject came along in a very natural way, during a trip I took with my husband to Pisa in 2005. Not only were most of us doing a snapshot of the Leaning Tower, but moreover a great many of us were standing in the same area to take this snapshot. I was wondering if all of these pictures, done by many different people during the hour we were there, looked the same. And because there were already many digital cameras in 2005, I was wondering if I could find similar images on the Internet.
Once I arrived back home, I started looking at all these collections of snapshots of famous landmarks I could find in search engines, using keywords such as “pisa” or “leaning tower.” That’s how my interest in these pictures, and eventually my series Photo Opportunities, got started.
GJ: These pictures are fascinating to me because they depict popular perceptions of these places rather than the places themselves. Your images show us our own collective view of the world. They show the ideas that we share together and it seems that these pictures are democratic in the truest sense. Would you agree with this reading? Is there anything you can add?
CV: I like your idea of this sharing, leading to the conclusion that these pictures are “democratic in the truest sense”. My first thought when starting this project was to speak about our collective memory, and to inspire questions about how an image influences our gaze. This work is also an attempt to speak about the souvenir. One souvenir for each of us, which is constantly transformed and idealized with time. Each image, individually, functions as a personal memory – and once they are merged – they become shared memories and tokens of communal experience.
I’m hoping that my work also speaks about the consumption of these images, and the making of uncountable numbers of snapshots (smart phones contribute a lot to this mass of images today) – as well as the omnipresence of image around us.
GJ: Your results strike a decidedly impressionist tone in their soft details and apparent abstraction of time. I’m reminded of Monet’s popular views of the Rouen Cathedral, which I’ve always thought were heavily influenced by photography both in their framing and in their emphasis on portraying static time. Would you characterize your work as impressionist? Did you set out to make your images look like this or was it simply a result of your process?
CV: I suppose this work could be called “impressionist.” The first image I made was Pisa (2005). I was working with all of these images of the Leaning Tower and while I was superimposing them over one another, I was surprised by the result, which was striking this impressionistic tone. This link with painting confirmed in my mind the decision to continue to work in that direction, as historically painting has contributed to our knowledge of monuments and famous landmarks.
Since then, I haven’t specifically tried to create work that looks like impressionist painting, but the style certainly influences me. Depending on the images, I could avoid thinking of myself as painting in the style of Monet or the water-colorist [William] Turner.
GJ: Through my own research I’ve found a couple other artists who work in this manner. Jason Salavon is known for delineating the history of Playboy Centerfolds; and Meggan Gould, who confronts popular works of art and cultural icons such as the Coca-Cola can. For the record, do you know of anyone else involved in this type of practice? Beyond these two, what other contemporary picture-makers can you relate yourself to?
CV: I’ve actually never thought about this. If one limits the comparison to technique, or aesthetic result, I can maybe name Jason Salavon, or Meggan Gould. But I find this pretty restrictive for the three of us.
The Internet is a phenomenon that has changed lots of things. Many artists find that it is an incredible source for both analysis and expression. I guess I’m part of these artists.
GJ: From the point-of-view of a tourist, I’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, walked on the Great Wall of China, I’ve been on a boat in the basin of Niagara Falls and seen the great chasm of the Grand Canyon. I’ve looked up at the Hollywood sign and the Space Needle. I’ve crossed Stari Most. I’ve driven down the Vegas Strip and through the Great Plains. I’ve stood at the foot of the Statue of Liberty and atop the Empire State Building. I’ve sat in the bleachers at Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
I write this list as a testament to achievement, and it’s something I take pride in, but I wonder why. In light of your project, do you have any insights into what drives us to experience the popular and iconic places in the world?
CV: This is certainly because these places are wonderful and special! Making photographs of these landmarks might speak to the admiration we have for these places. I also think that we don’t have the time to fully process the strongest moments in our lives. Holidays are short, and we have little time in front of these famous landmarks.
But photography changes also how we see and what we see. When we go and visit these famous sites, we have already an idea of what we will see. The perception we had of a place has an impact of our personal experience once there.
GJ: Last but not least, what’s coming up for you in 2013, photographically or otherwise?
CV: Guest speaker at the Word Economic Forum in Davos end of this January; Maison Européenne de la photographie, Les 10 ans d’Images magazine, Paris, France (from January); Arts Santa Monica, From Here On, curated by Clément Chéroux, Joan Fontcuberta, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr, Joachim Schmid, Barcelona, Spain (from February); Fotografica Bogotá, Colombia (May). Musée Jenisch, Lemancolia, curated by Dominique Radrizzani, Vevey, Switzerland (from June).
Three new projects that I’ll be working on and two books that will be published this year.
And hopefully some trips to see our friends and to travel…
Corinne Vionnet is a visual artist based in Switzerland. Her work has been exhibited at Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris; Fotomuseum, Antwerp, Belgium; Art Museum in Sion, Switzerland; Les Rencontres d’Arles, France; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver; Chelsea Art Museum, New York; Photo Center NW, Seattle; the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne. It has also featured in numerous publications, including Beaux-Arts magazine, Telegraph, Les Lettres et Les Arts, PDN, The British Journal of Photography, Yvi, spot, the Humble Arts Foundation’s The Collector’s Guide to New Art Photography and MAO from Horizons edition. She is represented by East Wing.
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Interview written by Gregory Jones.
All images © Corinne Vionnet.