Travel photography has long been associated with the act of exploration and discovery. Yet with the advent of mass tourism, cameras in cell phones and the numerous sharing platforms online, the personal experience of travel and discovery has changed irrevocably. Where the travel photograph was once a memento of a personal experience it has now become a commodity, replacing the experience itself. Many tourists fail to engage with the places they are visiting, instead glued to the touch screens of their camera phones, sharing the images they take instantly online and then vicariously reliving a moment, which they never truly experienced in the first place. In addition to this experiential disconnect between the photographer and that which they are photographing, the sheer amount of images uploaded to the Internet of certain places and “sights” has long reached the point of saturation. The question now arises, whether there is any value in these images at all? Italian photographer Stefano Galli’s work has been published by The British Journal of Photography, Vogue Italia and Dazed and Confused to name but a few. He set out on his own journey of discovery in the American Southwest to explore the role mass tourism now plays in the evolution of travel photography. We caught up with Stefano to talk about his experiences photographing photographers with the Leica M-D.
How did you first get into photography?
It started about 15 years ago when I was living in Denmark. There I met a photographer who taught me how to develop black and white and to print in the darkroom. Now I mainly photograph in color and I do not have a darkroom anymore but the passion keeps growing every single day.
Who would you name as you biggest influences or inspirations?
Diane Arbus and Tom Wood were the very first photographers that I discovered and they definitely shaped me and still influence me to this day. A great deal of my inspiration also comes from the world of film, for example the works of Wim Wenders and the director of photography Robby Muller, David Lynch and Lars Von Trier among others.
How did you come up with the concept for this series?
I’m interested in subcultures and certain social typologies, of which mass tourism is one. With this series I wanted to document the reality of mass tourism and try to capture the behavior of the people, who take part in it in remote and wild locations. The series could be defined as a meditation on what happens when the observer achieves an amazing view without having to walk the crooked lonesome trail, the difference between capturing and seeing, between the mythology of a place and the reality of it. It’s also an exploration into the ways, in which we try to commodify and domesticate the wilderness, this earth that belongs to everyone and to no one.
Whereabouts in the US were you shooting and why did you choose these locations?
To best capture the phenomenon of massive tourism, I chose popular destinations, the ones that would allow me to find the big crowds. The locations where I shot the series are the South rim of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Lake Powell, Horseshoe Bend and Bryce Canyon. These are among the most visited locations and national parks in the American Southwest.
What can you tell us about the tours that you photographed and how would you describe the people you were shooting on these trips?
It surprised me to see mainly Asian crowds. It almost felt as if I was at the Great Wall of China rather than the Grand Canyon. The crowds where unbelievably loud and wore very tacky outfits. Witnessing hundreds of people standing by the very edge to the Grand Canyon, packed like sardines in a can, is really something.
Did you get a chance to interact with them at all?
Not at all. I’m sure that most of these people were not even aware of me taking photos. I was interested in the tourists more as a ‘whole’, a ‘mass phenomenon’, rather than the individual. I only took two portraits: one of a Chinese man and one of two identical twins. They became the front and back cover of the project, respectively.
What kind of a comment are you making on this form of travel photography in particular and, more generally, the role of photography in the era of mobile technology?
I was very surprised to see people more interested in taking selfies with their sticks rather then photographing the amazing views. This fast-paced phone photography, where you can edit, upload and share in a split second is definitely providing me with some food for thought. I’m not sure if we are heading in the right direction. For sure it’s the opposite of the type of photography that I practice.
Can you tell us a little more about your process, while shooting this series?
I worked with a very minimal set up, as I always do on my projects. This one was carried out with the 35mm Summicron and 90mm Tele-Elmarit lenses. I also shot with manual exposure times and no flash.
Which camera did you use and what do you consider the advantages of your set up?
I needed a camera that would allow me to photograph a lot in a very short time frame. The Leica M-D served the purpose just perfectly. I’m a big advocate of film photography and I found the M-D to be the closest match to my Leica MP, which is my main camera. Also, I fell in love with the fact that the camera does not have a back-screen. What a great invention! No distractions, no unnecessary buttons, just the shutter release.
Do you also take photos with your phone? Have you ever used a selfie stick? How are the two experiences different for you?
I don’t take photos with my phone and neither do I own a selfie stick, so I wouldn’t know.
How does a series like this differ from your editorial work and work for commercial clients?
Here I have complete freedom and control over the project. Then, since there’s no deadline, once I’m done with the actual photography I pause the project for some time. This way I’m able to review my images with fresher eyes. It helps me to be more objective, almost as if I was revising somebody else’s work. For instance, I’m now working on negatives taken about 4-5 months ago.
Many of the images in this series are very candid in nature and they often forego classical framing and compositional techniques. Was this due to the spontaneous nature of each shot or was it a conscious decision on your behalf?
I’d say a little bit of both, even though, the way my photographs usually come to life are very unconscious. When I photograph I’m in a state of continuous momentum. I let myself go deeply into the scenario, in which I’m working and I try not to think too much about composition, framing and so on… It’s a flow. Sometimes it takes a while to free my mind from other distractions, but eventually it works. It’s like therapy or a drug, if you prefer.
Keeping your subjects in the foreground and the vast expanses of landscape in the background makes for some impressive bokeh effects. Did you also work with the manual settings of the Leica M-D to accentuate this?
Yes, everything was set to manual and shot wide open. This allowed me to achieve a very shallow depth of field, which was definitely a look that I was after. Then with the Tele-Elmarit I managed to accentuate this aspect even more.
What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?
On my Instagram account I post all my portraiture work that I’ve been taking since I moved to the United States in 2011. It’s a sort of archive I would say. I’m also working on two new series, which are documenting two distinct Los Angeles scenes, one in Hollywood and the other by the beaches. I’ll be uploading some previews on my website soon, so please stay tuned.
What advice would you offer to anyone looking to improve their photography?
Be yourself, be stubborn and keep doing what really speaks to you. You may not get exceptional results right away, but in the long run, if you persist and believe in your vision, you will see the results.