On Beauty, Seeing and Selfies
The thick walls rise up on either side of me. As I walk along the narrow passageway, it becomes a small tunnel underneath old masonry and stone, little shards and pieces of history cover every inch of the walls. It’s quiet in my mind, although the city rushes by right outside the gates. The tunnel is a grotto, like a small shrine in a cave, part of a larger place that I’m exploring. My family is nearby. They are a reminder that other people may be moving at a different pace. Other people may or may not be enjoying this. Is everyone comfortable? Do we need to leave soon or are we all equally at ease in this place.
I turn a bend and go up some steps, all tiled, all shockingly covered with artifacts, plates, folk art, teal grout that looks like the chrysocolla I always mistake for turquoise in the desert. I get to a landing and there’s two arches leading to new paths in this mosaic maze I’m in. I lean my head around one doorway and look down onto a staircase and I’m staring right down into the background of someone’s photograph. A silhouetted woman in all black poses artfully on the steps. One leg is bent with toes pointed on a step behind her, like a ballerina. Her friends are directing from the bottom of the steps. Their stuff—coats, purses, scarves—is all piled up in a mess on a chair nearby. These items don’t belong in the picture. In the picture, this is a perfect moment.
The women hush when they notice me and I retreat back into the shady nook behind the archway. I then try the other door, to my right, and I lean my head into another photo, this one of a family: man, woman, and a small child about five. The dad is trying to make the kid laugh, get him to smile. I quickly duck back into the small alleyway. I’m stuck here for about a minute or two as I hear the people shuffle around, tweak their poses and discuss the best way to stand. I see the mosaics right in front of me as I wait. I study them in detail and I find myself getting angry and misanthropic, even in the face of such great beauty and creativity.
How many photos were taken that morning at the Magic Gardens—a mosaic installation and museum in Philadelphia? It’s one man’s lifetime of work and in mere seconds people attempt to sum it up with a static image. One moment in an ever changing place. One moment spliced 50 ways.
How many people posed in front of the pyramid outside the Louvre today? How many took photos of the Mona Lisa inside? Each time I travel, I wonder what drives people to try and insert themselves so bluntly into a place of great beauty. Are they really “seeing” it or are they just trying to possess it? To secure an image that asserts I am here. I was here. I saw this. But did they really see it? Every time I take off my glasses and look at something up close, without lenses, I am startled at the difference it makes.
The other time I hated people for taking too many photographs, was on a road trip through Northern New Mexico and Arizona. We had spent several days wandering in remote wilderness, rural areas, and parklands. It was November, an off-season for many of the places we went, and there were not many other people around. Only one or two cars at our campsites. Only one other hiker on a trail.
Just outside of Page, Arizona we stopped to take a tour of Antelope Canyon. It’s a brilliant red slot canyon that has been carved over centuries and centuries by heavy rainfalls traveling at deadly speeds over the rocky and dry landscape. The wavy, bright red and orange fissure runs about 120 feet deep and you can descend into it and walk through it with a Navajo guide.
When we got to Antelope Canyon, the parking lot was crowded and there was a main building to buy tickets, refreshments, and gifts. The next tour did not leave for a half hour, so we got tickets and walked around the gift shop. There were the usual dream catchers, key chains, postcards, and shot glasses. But also a whole gallery of framed professional photographs of the canyon. The shots were brilliant but they all looked the same, like hotel art. Different angles of bright red rock walls rippling, swirling, and meeting the sky.
Our guide was a 17-year-old kid wearing skateboarding shoes, black jeans, a hoodie, and a baseball hat. He was slightly pudgy and wavered between self-confidence and childish curiosity. Here are all of these people from all over the world (speaking many different languages) coming to see this place, which is his place. He seemed very sheltered, like he rarely got to leave Page or even Arizona. He wanted to show how comfortable and blasé he was about knowing the canyon but also wanted to study or know more about these visitors from far corners of the world.
The tour kicked off with a descent down a rickety metal stairway into what appeared from the surface to be a small, nondescript crack in the ground. The canyon was incredible. Sometimes daylight glowed on a wall, sometimes the air and light was filtered with fine powder. It was both light and dark, the two truths of the Southwest.
As you walked, your viewpoint changed constantly. People disappeared around curves. There were scrambles up rock ledges and back down. It felt like being on a dry ocean bed. Dangerous knowing the beauty around you was created by flash floods. The guide had a flute in his back pocket and played a little music on it. He told me he wished he was better and I said it sounded great. His main concern was herding our group of about 20 people and keeping us moving so we adhered to the hour-long schedule and so other tours could come in behind us.
We stayed mostly at the front of the walk with the guide. We were moving pretty slowly and stopping to admire certain angles, take a photo – just be. When only five people gathered at the next big manmade stairway, the guide hustled back to find the others. He move the stragglers along and we all went down deeper into the canyon on a second precarious metal staircase. A woman in front of me was walking down the steps while holding her phone in one hand, the camera trained on the ground in front of her. Everyone was holding a phone or a camera. That’s when I realized why our group was so slow: the pictures.
For the rest of the tour the guide kept us all together and people stopped every few feet to take more photos. More poses. Smiling. Leaning. Adjusting. This is the most beautiful, no this is…. This is a good shot, no wait, now your friend is waving you over two feet to the right. Perfect! No wait, one more.
It got so bad that I would come around a bend and people would give me a look as if to say, “We’re taking a photo here, do you mind?” I didn’t get angry because I was in such awe of the canyon. I ignored the selfie people, tried to stay out of their way, and actually found that I put my own camera away and just “looked” for most of the tour. At one point the guide said to me and my husband, “You guys don’t like taking photos huh?” And my husband laughed, “Not as much as these guys.”
Near the end of the tour we were waiting for another round of selfies to conclude. We stood leaning against the two canyon walls looking up with the guide standing across from us. That’s when he said to my husband, “Hey give me your phone for a sec.” He messed with some of the camera settings and very quickly threw one hand up over his head and snapped a photo, like snapping his fingers. He handed the phone back to us. It was the best photograph of the day. Layers of rock undulating up and up and up. Blood orange ribbons against a bright blue sky, the light and dark captured exquisitely.
The guide told us the spot we were standing in was famous with photographers. They’d come here on special tours that allowed tripods and wait for the perfect time of day to capture the best light, then take that same photo. We waited for the selfie-obsessed stragglers to catch up again before he led us all back out into the bright sun. I’ll never know how many pictures our group took that day, or if they ever did anything constructive with those photos.
I haven’t looked at any of my photos in a long time, not even the amazing shot the teenage guide so casually perfected. They’re all on a hard drive with other trips and events, tucked away into a safe drawer. But I still remember the fine dust settling on my tongue as we walked and how that canyon wall felt against my fingertips.
(Photo Credit: Magic Gardens from Flickr user Kevin Burkett).