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When he visited the Pyramids of Giza in 2012, one of the most-visited tourist attractions in the world, photographer Oliver Curtis turned around and faced the desert landscape from which he’d traveled. The surrounding vista entranced him nearly as much as the pyramids did: “Under a veil of smog lay the city of Giza,” Curtis wrote. “Immediately in front of me the sand of the desert was adorned with an assortment of human detritus; litter, pieces of rusted metal, a large rubber washer and a torn hessian sack. Then, in the mid-distance I saw a newly constructed golf course, its fairways an intense green under the late morning sun.”
With the Pyramid of Khufu looming behind him, he took a picture of this comparatively unimpressive scene: “This visual sandwich of contrasting color, texture and form was intriguing not least because of the oddness of my position; standing at one of the great wonders of the world facing the ‘wrong’ way.”
That photo inspired a four-year long project in which Curtis traveled to the world’s most-photographed tourist sites, from the Parthenon to the Hollywood sign, and took pictures while facing the “wrong way.” Instead of the Statue of Liberty’s majestic greened copper, he photographed the metal grate, fence, and river view in front of her. Instead of Christ the Redeemer’s outstretched arms, he photographed the janitors and security staff who sit beneath the statue daily.
The series “invites you to turn around and see a new aspect of the over-photographed sites of the world—to send your gaze elsewhere and to favor the incidental over the monumental,” Curtis writes. Called “Volte-Face” (“About Face”), the project is now published in a book by Dewi Lewis.
In these photographs, the humble scenes next to these historic places seem somehow enchanted by association — they suggest the “magical law of contagion” applies not just to famous humans but to notorious places, too, in that they seem to imbue their surroundings with their “essence.” “Although the landscape featured may seem initially unremarkable, banal even, once you realize where they are in proximity to somewhere very iconic, they take on a whole new quality and become quite resonant,” Curtis says. When you realize the image of a tire-tracked dirt road was taken next to the Hollywood Sign, the image suddenly seems worth studying, like there must be something special about that dirt road.
In the photograph taken from the foot of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a trio of security workers and janitors sit with a blue plastic broom, looking out over a cloudy sky. In its natural beauty, the landscape is as breathtaking as an image of the statue itself — perhaps more so. “The day before [I took this photo], the venue was packed with tourists, many taking selfies and pictures of themselves in the Christ pose, arms outstretched,” Curtis says. “I took quite a lot of shots but wasn’t entirely convinced I’d captured something unique or particularly evocative. On returning early the next morning before most people had arrived, I encountered the security staff and janitors enjoying the view, chilling out on a slow morning. They have a lack of awe borne of daily exposure.” The millions of photographs taken at Christ the Redeemer usually exclude these staffers, rendering them invisible. Here, they become the focus of the photograph, which becomes a reminder that a monument is also a place of work, of labor.
The series is an example of a photograph’s ability to lend weight and visual power to a subject that might otherwise remain overlooked. “As tourists our attention is focused on a very narrow field of view, dictated to a certain extent by the mythology and fame associated with these historic sites,” Curtis says. “But this comes at the expense of an awareness of the impact our travels have on the landscape around these monument and buildings. The environment is often ignored and neglected. These are places we look from, not at. And in that sense they are in every way overlooked.”