Site seeing: people, posing and photography in Pompeii then and now

I have recently started work on a project that aims to understand how people have experienced sites by looking at the evidence from their photography. In this project I have been looking at an archive of lantern slides (277 photos) held at the Institute of Archaeology – these date from the 19th and 20th centuries and are the focus of a project to keyword and digitize the slides: HEIR (Historic Environment Resource Project http://www.arch.ox.ac.uk/HEIR.html). I owe a great debt of thanks to this project and the people working on it, who have made this archive available. I have also used my own photographs of Pompeii, taken during a trip this July on which I visited the site for two days – one day by myself and one day with my mother. Finally, I have also looked at photographs from TripAdvisor posted by visitors to the site from July 2014-October 2014 (797 photos). So far, my analysis seems to suggest that there is a myth of silent and empty ancient cities that has largely been received from photographic practice from the 19th century onwards and which is still practiced today.

My analyses focused on three main areas: people and poses; ‘must haves’ and themes; lecture sets and shared knowledge. Today, I am going to write about people and poses.

In the lantern slide collection as a whole, there are a mere 15 photographs with people (just 5% of the total) and it would appear that 9 of these had been deliberately posed (60%). The posing suggests that these weren’t people who accidentally ended up in shot. This is reinforced by the fact that only 4 of those with people had more than two people in them, with the highest number of people being five – in one of the Forum photographs.

A lady reading on the steps of the Temple of Isis (AD43265_AHistc4d2img214c-pp)

A lady reading on the steps of the Temple of Isis (AD43265_AHistc4d2img214c-pp)

This prompted me to wonder: was this just a circumstance of the time i.e. that there were many fewer visitors, or is there something deeper happening that reflects our way of experiencing ancient sites? And so, back to my photographs as a comparison.

The numbers of photographs with people in them is much higher in my set: 59 with people – 24%. In mine just three are posed: one with my Mum and two with me – these numbers may be a little bit low as the day on which I took most of my photographs, I visited the site by myself and I am in general too shy to ask strangers to photograph me. In my 59 people photos, 46 had more than two people in them, with 11 or more in 18 photographs. The highest numbers were in the forum; the Large Theatre; the Gladiator Barracks; the baths; the House of the Faun; along the via dell’Abbondanza and in the amphitheatre.

To give a sense of the impact these higher numbers give on a space, compare these two photos of the tepidarium in the Stabian Baths – in both cases we have taken the same shot, but mine is clearly very much more crowded.

Lantern slide view of the tepidarium (warm room) of the Stabian Baths, Pompeii (AD44398_Instarchbx208im072-pp).

Lantern slide view of the tepidarium (warm room) of the Stabian Baths, Pompeii (AD44398_Instarchbx208im072-pp).

My view of the tepidarium in the Stabian Baths, Pompeii.

My view of the tepidarium in the Stabian Baths, Pompeii.

All of that said, I still managed to take 190 photographs with no people in them, which is quite deliberate on my part because I prefer to have no people in my archaeological photographs – given that current visitor numbers at Pompeii are in the region of 2.5 million a year, which gives an average of 74440 on any given day and sometimes up to 20,000 (for example on a day in May 2012), I had to go to great lengths and exert a lot of patience to get some of my empty photograph (I distinctly remember waiting for a good five minutes to take one of my donkey mill photographs). This strong desire for photographs without people is a very important point, to which I will return, but let us put that on hold for now and look at whether this is a particular habit of archaeologists…

In order to explore this question, I also looked at the presence and absence of people in the TripAdvisor photographs, fully expecting to find that given the huge numbers of people visiting the site, there would be very few photographs without people. I was wrong. Although there are many more photographs with people, there are still more without people: 450 (56%). Of the photos with people, just 61 (18%) are posed, so in the vast number of cases the people are just other visitors who happen to be in a given photograph. Of the posed photos most were of just one man, whom I now feel that I know… Particularly noticeable (especially given that this is the ‘year of the selfie) was the general lack of selfies – just 4 in 797 photos. I would have expected more of these ‘I woz ‘ere’ photographs – is it possible that people are deliberately filtering out personal photographs to create a personal persona on TripAdvisor?

One of many photos of 'Johan T' from TripAdvisor, October 2014.

One of many photos of ‘Johan T’ from TripAdvisor, October 2014.

Malika L: 'Us with our audio guide' [TripAdvisor October 2014]

Malika L: ‘Us with our audio guide’ [TripAdvisor October 2014]

Unsurprisingly, as with me, the same parts of the site were the busiest. What is most interesting is that on several occasions, it seems clear that people have ended up in photographs accidentally i.e. that people were trying to take a clear shot, but couldn’t quite manage it. This demonstrates, if demonstration were needed, how difficult it can be to take a photograph in Pompeii without people and yet people seem to be going to extraordinary lengths to do so. This is quite a striking pattern and suggests that I (and other archaeologists) are not alone in trying to take people-free photographs.

This, of course, begs the question: why? Why do we all seemingly want to have empty photos? Are they deemed more ‘authentic’? Is there a strange tension here – surely, we could argue that the more ‘authentic’ experience of visiting an ancient city, would be one which was peopled, bustling, vibrant and full of the noises and smells of a city? So, why are we so focused on emptying our views and memories of these sites? (In a sense, we are creating powerfully-false memories – this was not actually our experience of the site). Are we doing this because this is what we are used to seeing because of the early creation of iconic or ‘must have’ photographs?

This will be the focus of my next blog…

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One thought on “Site seeing: people, posing and photography in Pompeii then and now

  1. Pingback: Two exhibitions of early photography – summer 2015 | notallarchaeologistshavebeards

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