Landmarks and the rituals of the tourist: Colin Snapp’s ‘Observatory’

As you enter the alexander levy art gallery in Berlin, you are confronted with a number of large photographs of security cameras and binoculars looking back at you. This is “Observatory,” Colin Snapp’s most recent exhibition in which he explores the relationships we have with landmarks.

Colin Snapp, NV Regional, 2013/17, HD video still. Courtesy of the artist and alexander levy.

A post for Omnified by Arian Bozorg

As you enter the alexander levy art gallery in Berlin, you are confronted with a number of large photographs of security cameras and binoculars looking back at you. This is “Observatory,” Colin Snapp’s most recent exhibition in which he explores the relationships we have with landmarks.

The exhibition, featuring a series of eight photographs and a three-channel video, focuses on two iconic landmarks on the American west coast, the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles and the Hoover Dam on the border of Nevada and Arizona. Both locations hold significance in American folklore: the Griffith Observatory making a cameo in many Hollywood films, including “Rebel Without a Cause,” “La La Land” and “The Terminator,” and the Hoover Dam is a feat of modern engineering and a monument to American affluence of the mid-20th century.

Snapp sees the journeys people make to these landmarks as “pilgrimages.” This is the focus of the exhibition, Snapp said: “it’s more about the way in which they’re getting there. To me it speaks to the ritualistic aspects of tourism in America.”

By focusing on the pilgrimage, the monuments disappear in his photographs and videos. “A lot of it is just taking the inverse of it all,” he said. “Taking what these people are going to photograph and kind of reversing it. It’s not the Hoover Dam that I am photographing, it’s the negative space around Hoover Dam.”

The three-channel video, “NV Regional,” achieves exactly that, revealing the tourists streaming down the back of the Hoover Dam. Following the paths of the dam, the people seem like performers from a 1930s musical, their movements exaggerated and deliberate. Their tourist clothes and paraphernalia, almost as if it’s a uniform, make them appear more like line workers in a mine than tourists at a monument.

The stark background of the orange rock at the Hoover Dam allows you to focus on the people, their quirks and patterns of behavior. “It’s a neutral background to work with. When it’s a photograph taken of a person in nature the contrast becomes really intense,” Snapp said. This contrast has kept Snapp documenting these natural sites for years on end, highlighting the small gestures that evolve through time and technology.

Having previously worked as a documentarian for National Geographic Traveler and BBC News, this fascination with human behavior has been a long running theme in Snapp’s work – and it was a natural progression for him to art.

“I would just isolate moments in my documentary work, looping it, and that became more interesting to me than the entirety of the piece,” Snapp said. “At some point I came to the conclusion that it made a lot more sense for me to show these works in a gallery or museum than a cinema.”

Snapp’s background in documentary filmmaking and photography permeates into all parts of his work, each series seeming like a deconstructed documentary revealing nuanced human behaviors. The audio for “NV Regional” follows his honest documentary filmmaking style, using natural audio recorded from the power lines above the Hoover Dam, the subtle hum of the work growing more and more piercing.

“I really like to incorporate as much of the natural audio as possible, I really want to be honest,” Snapp said. But also, through his process, Snapp adds subtle changes to the sound to create a separation from the subject: “I slowed it down and layered it so there is some removal happening.”

Layers are a constant theme in Snapp’s work, his photography series, “Observatory,” showing streaks and patterns from the screens he is photographing, furthering the separation from the subject.

“It started when I set up these surveillance cameras in Yellowstone and I noticed all the footage ended up being of other people taking photographs,” Snapp said. “I was thinking if I was going to take photographs that I should photograph through an LCD screen, which is the way these people are experiencing these natural sites.”

The separation between people and nature at these major landmarks is an inherent part of the experience, with the architecture mediating your experience through the natural landscape.

“It kind of just struck me as this strange grey area where it’s not really nature,” Snapp said. “You’re having a natural experience… [but] it almost has this like Disneyland feel to it.”

Like the architecture, these layers of distortion take you further and further away from nature and create a voyeuristic experience, watching people watching nature through their screens. The photographs of security cameras and binoculars amplify this by turning the camera back on you, the observer, highlighting how, as Snapp said, “technology is changing how we experience nature.”

Colin Snapp’s exhibition, “Observatory,” can be seen at alexander levy through Nov. 3, 2018.