At first glance, Sarah Smith’s series of photos appear simply to be snapshots from a trip to Niagara falls. However, upon taking a deeper look, they are a careful selection of images encompassing both the deeply personal, and the largely universal nature of recreational travel. In Smith’s own words: “The project began with an interest in vernacular travel images and how they can hold both specific and anonymous information within them. What came of it were quintessential landscape images mixed with heart shaped tubs and souvenir pressed pennies, all images and objects I knew to associate with this place before ever arriving. The work is a record of looking for romance, and despite the clichés, still finding it”.
As one scrolls through the first three photos, they almost feel a wave of relief as they move from a seemingly cold, outdoor environment, then succeeded by the formal locale of some kind of event, to the warm and steamy setting of the tub. The series does a wonderful job of expressing – among many other things – the aura of taking a trip in the North. Smith explains that “as tourists we travel to specific places looking to fulfill experiential needs that are unique to that location. I’m interested in the images made at these places and how as objects they are later gathered and collected. Personal photographs can be read both with and without accompanying details because of the viewer’s ability to see and associate an image with their own experience. These proofs allow us to claim an experience as our own and lay ownership over these moments. Niagara Falls is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world, with visitors coming to witness the thick mist donned in blue ponchos. It is also viewed as a destination for lovers, being deemed the honeymoon capital of the world. The work from Where the Great Lakes Leap to the Sea is an account of my individual, and occasionally private, experience yet one shared by many other Niagara visitors”.
The photo of the folded clothes is a particularly striking one. For a moment, the viewer can’t tell if the articles of clothing are deeply pressed, or whether they are made of cardstock. The viewer is unsure whether they are gazing at a museum display case or actual contents of a suitcase, until they peer closer and see that these are only illusions of real clothes.
What Smith does next is pair images of tourist tokens with landscape, signifying the expectations one would hold of typical travel photos. She then disrupts this theme by staggering the ‘tourist photos’ among much more conceptual images, atypical of what one would expect from a vacation photo album.
As Smith mentions, physical items help to give context. They are apparent proofs of the physical destination visited, and as they are an accessible experience to anyone who visits the falls (or, at least, here, anyone who is carrying a penny), there is a certain universality to them. This draws viewers in, as they imagine what other moments may have accompanied these selected stills. However, as Smith points out, there is an abundance of value to be had in a photograph besides it’s universality, or sense of nostalgia. According to Smith, “The greatest failure of photography is its inherent nostalgia. It forces us to constantly look backwards, filling present voids with imperfect depictions of the past. Photographs promise something permanent, yet their very existence is a direct result of how ephemeral the experiences they represent actually are. They fall pitifully short in capturing the essence of what we want them to represent, yet we still expect them to act as stand-ins for the past”
The symbolism of the coins and the falls are followed by an even heavier symbolism: the American flag. The foggy weather and the rips in the flag can be read either as pure circumstance, or something much darker.
Similar to the image of the American flag, the viewer assumes the above image to be benign, but it also carries much darker undertones. The deep blue and cool tones of the water, along with the face-down pose of the figure, points the imagination to a drowning.
Here, we move from suggestive dark undertones to a much starker reality. To follow the somber images of the torn flag in the fog and the floating figure in the dark waters, Smith hits us with a much more graphic effigy. Although the image avoids showing outright gore, the blood-stained porch and the contrast between the ear emerging from the white bag stirs up a reaction from many of the eyes that fall upon it.
This snowy dock would function very well as a sort of thematic bookend to the series – it’s vagueness has the viewer stop to try to make out a form and better interpret what they are seeing. Like the previous photos, it toys with our minds while we try to decide whether to construe the untouched snow as a symbol of serenity and renewal, or as a hauntingly empty canvas – a question with no answer in sight.
Rather than leaving us with the image of the snow, Smith taunts our analytical minds further by ending the series with a much warmer photo. With the wrinkled hands and the gold band, this image, too, bleeds with symbolism. Smith ultimately achieves her goal of investigating the “relationship, expectations, and attachment to the photographic image”. While many works of art purposely evoke a specific mood or feeling, Smith’s work aims for unspecificity – purposely confusing and intriguing us, and then smiles while we search ourselves for why this is. In her own words, “the images are direct, photographed with an objective distance that hovers between the intimate and the analytic”. Her work is modern conceptual photography at its finest.