Pity the American middle class: they're too well fed to merit anybody's sympathy, but too gauche to earn anyone's esteem. As a group, they occupy a vast cultural wasteland where, in terms of tastes, fashion, and aesthetics, almost anything goes, but none of it gets much respect. Roger Minick's photographs of this amorphous socio-economic entity are scathing and honest. They're also hilarious. Part of the fun in his rarely seen 'Sightseer' series is the effortlessness with which he makes those qualities work hand in hand.
The photos in this series were all of 'average' visitors to famous sites in famous American national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. What the pictures allow one to gradually savour is how little about these people is really average, and how much about these famous places is really trite. It's a reversal that the artist coaxes gently out of his images by letting what is most unassuming the people eclipse that which is most photogenic the dramatic gorges, geysers and waterfalls in front of which they stand. The off-kilter compositions that result look like one's goofiest vacation snapshot, except that the people involved are all strangers. But that doesn't mean you don't recognise them: the wonderful thing about these characters is how easily they let themselves be known in all their glorious idiosyncrasy.
Their clothing alone speaks volumes. It manages to be both outlandish and completely guileless at the same time. Here you'll find a silver-haired grandfather clad head to foot in a one-piece, cherry-red jumpsuit, looking for all the world like Captain Kangaroo. In another image a weary looking uncle escorts a nephew who towers over him in short shorts and a tee shirt that barely reaches below his armpits. Another strapping young fellow has come out with his cowboy hat, a pair of jeans in which he seems to have just changed the oil in the car, and candy-coloured flip-flops.
Whether naive or just simply bizarre, what these costumes bespeak is an absolute lack of pretence or image consciousness. As a 'look', it may be uncalculated, but Minick knows it's not unrevealing. The driving principle here is comfort, and one part of this work is simply a meditation on the American concept of leisure time. For these folks a vacation isn't about going someplace new or unfamiliar, it's about extending the boundaries of the living room. Minick documents how the great outdoors has been tamed not by the Army Corps of Engineers, but by the engines of domesticity. We see Nature made safe for Winnebagos, pet poodles, pensioners and, of course, the kids. The most damning shot of all is also probably the most quiet and understated. It shows a bank of handy ashtrays provided to visitors by the Park service at a scenic outlook, just like the kind you'd find in a movie theatre or shopping mall.
On one level, then, this project reads like an indictment. The middle class tourist is presented as despoiler and prime agent in the general dumbing down of things. This creates more than just a passing risk that these photos will establish an 'us and them' mentality. By spotlighting the bumptiousness of these characters, the photographer gives the rest of us a chance to feel good about our own (supposedly) higher standards and tastes.
But Minick makes this impossible by including himself and us in the indictment. All of these tourists have come to enjoy a 'scenic view'. Even before their film is loaded and the snapshots are taken (or even if, God forbid, someone forgot their camera), the whole experience of these places is framed and understood as a photograph. Each site is famous precisely because it is 'picture perfect'. Photography is as much to blame for the cultural degradation of these environments as anything else, and just because the artist conspicuously relegates all those photogenic landscapes to the background doesn't mean he is exempt. Minick can't assess these people with any sense of superiority. Instead, he approaches them with the more complex understanding that as a photographer and fellow despoiler he's fully a member of their company. And as gallery-goers in search of our own brand of 'scenic view', so are we.