(This project works better as a slide show, and can be viewed in that format here, or by following the Photography menu at the top of the page.)
Unable to travel like so many during the COVID-19 pandemic, I found myself reflecting on previous journeys and how my perspectives of those places have changed over the years. Reviewing photographs of those travels accessed memories of varying clarity and intensity. Time and place are dependent on one another. Like a river that changes constantly, neither the destination nor I would be the same at any other time. Simply defining a place is not always straightforward, be it a building, neighborhood, city, state/province, country, or region. In this case, I considered place at the city level – not entirely accurate where Chichen Itza is concerned, but the for the Maya it was a city.
My memories of Chichen Itza are more vivid than some places I’ve visited more recently. Is that because Chichen Itza was a more concentrated experience, a smaller space? Or because of the historic nature of the site? Walking through Chichen Itza was a nearly solitary activity because it was not yet overrun with cruise ship tourists. Exploring those ruins was as close as I’ve come to feeling connected with or communing with souls who are long gone.
Do people define the place or does place define the people? Very few photos of people in this project. For years I tried to photograph sites with as few people in the frame as possible. As I’ve come to appreciate both street photography and the essential context added by residents, I’m still reluctant to seem confrontational by photographing someone without their permission. One exception is Treasure Island, Florida: these photos describe the place only to the extent that they represent the monthly Treasure Island Drum Circle, no doubt attended by many who aren’t Treasure Island residents.
Completing this project, I learned that Google Maps can not only display the most recent street view, but historic street views as well. This is significant in places of rapid change, like Manhattan. Repeat visits to a place (Manhattan in 2005 and 2007, for example), enrich the experience. Orientation during an initial visit doesn’t need to be repeated. Even as quickly as New York City changes, some touchstone experiences remain essentially constant, like the Brooklyn Bridge or Grand Central. Yet we are still different individuals every time we return to a place, and our perspective will always be influenced by those past visits.
I wish I had photographed every restaurant and every meal. The pleasure of dining out was more important to these journeys than the photos indicate. Some restaurants I have fairly clear memories of, like a delicious lunch at Jones in Philadelphia, but I have no memory of others, such as dinner at Don Giovanni in New York City, even though I kept notes and know I was there. Even within the same trip my memory is inconsistent.
The emphasis on architecture does not necessarily reflect specific destinations or activities, with the exception of Miami Beach, where art deco architecture was one of my primary interests. Instead, the many photos of architecture reflect my passion for exploring places on foot. Maps are essential for this: born as navigational tools, maps become keepsakes and historic documents in old age. GPS may be efficient but it deprives us of context, all the side streets and diversions we can encounter more effectively with a physical map.
Of course, written records enhance our memories. For years I maintained a web site where I published trip reports of my travels. I abandoned the site after 2009 but wish I had continued writing the trip reports. Printed travel guides help jog my memory, but travel information has become so easily accessible on the Web that I didn’t bother buying a guide the last time I traveled for pleasure, to Montreal. During the time of my trip to Mexico (2000) I was in the habit of keeping a journal, but I was careless about documenting specific details, such as meals and costs.
Places aren’t just travel destinations but our homes, like Tampa, Florida, was for me for several years. This is an entirely different experience of place, though I sometimes like to imagine I’m a tourist in whatever place I’m living to avoid taking it for granted. Not an easy thing to do during a pandemic.
One memory can link to multiple times and places. A recent New York Times article on Keith Jarrett took me back to a solo performance I attended in San Francisco in 1997 and another performance with his Standards Trio in Boston in 2003. Our bodies can’t be in three times and places at once, but our minds can.
Music, movies, or television can evoke a specific time and place. Listening to Billy Joel’s River of Dreams album returns me to the day I first listened to it in 1993, in my apartment in Mountain View, California, after buying the compact disc at Tower Records during my lunch hour. That collection of songs will always connect me to a specific moment in time and space.
I lived near San Francisco for many years, so now when I’m there it feels a little like returning home. But the city has changed to much, it reduces me to being a tourist again.
Souvenirs (the French word for “memory,” a recollection of the past in the present) are specifically designed to recall particular times and places. A few rocks I picked up in Paris (one from Pere Lachaise Cemetery, don’t tell anyone) are literal touchstones of a unique time and place.
Conversely, a previous time/place experience can influence forward. Visiting Paris made reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables far more rewarding.
I feel a closer connection to places that have changed little since I was there. Something else that can be verified by Google Maps: which restaurants and hotels I visited are still in business. Finding that a restaurant I ate at ten or fifteen years ago is still operating gives me inexplicable joy. This connects me more with my own past, with the person I was at the time, and gives life a continuity that otherwise escapes me on most days. Our identities are closely bound to physical space; when our towns or neighborhoods experience rapid change, we are unsettled. If the places we’ve been no longer exist, does that mean part of our past, and with it part of ourselves, goes with them?