In Hank Paper’s Tourists 2, we see two couples sitting on outdoor chairs and tables. We can barely see the faces of one couple; they look like they’re chatting amiably. Maybe they’re good friends. Maybe they’re on a date. The other couple looks tired, like they’ve been on their feet for a while. Maybe they’re carrying too much stuff around. But what really ties it together is the ridiculous gnome in the center of the photograph. Is the man sitting next to it staring it down? Staring past it? Has he almost forgotten it’s there?
The photo, taken in Prague, could on its own elicit a few ideas about the inherent superficiality of travel, the quasi-absurdity of it. You go to a place like Prague to have a cultural experience, to learn, to grow, and end up eating ice cream next to a gnome. Is this what you really traveled thousands of miles to do?
Paper’s work is on display through Nov. 18 in a new show at Westville Village’s Kehler-Liddell’s Gallery.
Paper’s photos are about more than poking fun at tourists. “Shooting around the world, I try to capture images that alter our awareness, puncture pretension and mine irony from surface appearances,” he writes in an accompanying statement. “In my vision, warmth and wit, and the wily truth, reside within revelatory geometries. My images lodge in the hidden, interstices of perception: what people look at, yet don’t see, the strange and the beautiful, the real and the surreal, the quotidian and the quintessential. Often, we don’t see what we should, but the camera does.”
It’s a knotty sentence in parts, but in Paper’s pairing of photographs from his travels in Eastern Europe and visits to New York City, you start to see what he means. The same impish humor is on full display in Reading. Why is a woman standing in her underwear in the street? Who are the people taking pictures of her with their phones? And how is it that the person reading doesn’t quite see what’s going on around her?
As Paper’s statement suggests, the camera’s lens is itself a kind of naive tourist whether the people taking the pictures are new to a place or have lived there for their entire lives. It revels in surface details, doesn’t feel much compulsion to dig deeper; it’s on us to do that, to try to construct a narrative, to find meaning. When we go to a new place, we’re more like a camera. When we get used to a place, we stop looking at it.
Paper’s images are antidotes, in some ways, to both impulses to be dazzled by surfaces or learn to take them for granted. Some places, of course, look nothing like America, and can be thrilling to discover on a trip — like this public bath in Budapest. But Paper also makes canny juxtapositions, as with public sculptures in Eastern Europe and the giant metal globe that’s still the centerpiece of the site of the 1964 World’s Fair in Queens, N.Y. It’s a neat parallel for getting at other deeper similarities, such as to Communist-era apartment complexes that can be found all over Eastern Europe and high-rise public housing projects that accompanied the massive urban renewal programs in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. During the Cold War, the communism that held sway over so many countries east of the Iron Curtain and the capitalism that still holds sway over the West were posed as enemies, opposites. Yet their large-scale architecture could be startlingly similar; maybe the two systems held similarities that neither side wanted to recognize.
There are images that take advantage of the juxtaposition of American and European images to play with our expectations, as in Graham 2. The decor suggests a scene somewhere in Europe, but given the subject in the photograph — New Haven-based artist Graham Honaker — it probably isn’t.
And then there’s this park scene, which could be mistaken for New York, but isn’t.
Finally, there are a few images that feel both particular and universal all at the same time. The surface details in John Lennon Wall are exquisite, from the full flower of graffiti that doesn’t look quite like graffiti in the United States, to the cuts of the clothes and the haircuts of the young couple, which don’t quite look like American fashions. We’re somewhere else. But extravagant graffiti are endemic to cities the world over. And humans everywhere recognize the look in the young woman’s eyes.