“There is nothing in this world as invisible as a monument,” the Austrian author Robert Musil once wrote.
It’s a sentiment that photographer and cinematographer Oliver Curtis was reminded of while traveling to cities around the world for commercial jobs. “Like any traveler, you want to see the sights,” he says. “But every time you turn up you feel like you’ve seen it before–that’s a pyramid or that’s the Taj Mahal. You’ve already seen it from photographs.”
So instead of photographing the same monuments that had been photographed thousands upon thousands of times before him, Curtis began turning around to face the scenes around those monuments. For his series Volte-face, he offers an alternate view of some of the world’s most well-trodden places–capturing the part of the landscape that’s literally overlooked as people crane their heads to see the sights.
Curtis’s images show familiar landmarks like the Lincoln Memorial, the Vatican, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall of China, though you’ll only know it from their captions. In the Louvre, for his portrait of the ever-crowded Mona Lisa, Curtis captures a solitary woman looking at the painting opposite: Aline François’s much less famous The Wedding Feast at Cana. At Buckingham Palace, he turns his lens to the awkward standing positions of tourists juxtaposed with the bottom half of a poster depicting the stoic and uniform Queen’s guard. At the Great Pyramid of Giza outside Cairo, where he started the series in 2012, he turned to face a desert expanse marked rubble, the neighboring city Giza visible in the background.
The images vary greatly from site to site, offering a new perspective on these familiar places. Curtis says the commonality between all of the monuments is the obvious neglect of the surrounding landscapes. “They’re ruffled and unkempt because all the focus and energy is on this totem, at the expense of the environment around it,” he says. “Whether rubbish, litter, car tracks, car parks, or just people standing and looking–those views are not deigned for looking at.”
Curtis has visited 44 different sites over the four years he’s been working on the project, all of which will be published in an upcoming book that will be released in September.
What struck him most about working on the project, he says, was a realization that the sites were designed in such a way so that your gaze goes in one direction and one direction only, completely surpassing the rest of the landscape. “The world is presented for us in quite an organized way: look at this, don’t look at this,” he says. “We as tourists fulfill that happily. I’m questioning what really tells you the most about a place. For me, the building that’s behind me and the landscape in front of me creates a dialogue that tells you the most about where you are standing.”
[All Photos: Oliver Curtis]