The Artist Creating Holiday Photographs of Places He’s Never Visited

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Untitled (Focus) [1], from the series I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before, 2015© Thomas Albdorf

Thomas Albdorf’s new exhibition explores the strange phenomena of tourist photography through an eerie, computer-generated lens

If ever you’ve taken a photograph with the Eiffel Tower pressed between your fingers, or pretended to rest against the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you’ll be familiar with the ubiquity of “holiday content” – the photographs we take when we’re away, and which everybody else takes too.

It’s unlikely you’ve examined this phenomena to quite the same extent that Thomas Albdorf has, though. The Vienna-based artist focuses his practice on the intersection of photography and sculpture, and, more specifically, how in digital culture the decontextualisation of the uploaded image can have strange and utterly captivating effects. Here, photography is transmogrified beyond its traditional conception, he explains; instead, it is a “chain of decisions” which begins with the subject, and ends in a space of “possibilities and probabilities”, often perpetuated by the endless potentials of post-production. Through the lens of his newest series, on display currently at Amsterdam’s Foam Museum, it’s an easier idea to grasp: in Room With a View, Albdorf sought to create a series photographs of a place that he had never visited at all.

It all started with a series he made in 2015, called I Know I Will See What I Have Seen Before, he explains. “It was basically a book about Austria where I travelled in the mountains and recorded images there,” he says. “The goal was to deconstruct those cliches that people associate with Austria – like snowy mountains and beautiful forests – and to test if I could make images that have been photographed a million times, and add something new.” At the end of the trip, he went home, developed and scanned the negatives, and set up installations in this studio that would incorporate and reference the images he had gathered while away. “Many of the images in the book were sort of fake – or they were not like what they appeared to be at first glance – but everything was based on sites that I travelled to.”

For his next project, General View, he decided to push this concept one step further, extrapolating ideas about the places we feel we know even if we’ve never actually visited them. He gathered images of Yosemite, one of America’s most spectacular and idealised national parks (and a place you’re as likely to recognise from your computer desktop as from a book or a postcard) and manipulated them to create new, surreal, but yet strangely recognisable landscapes.

So how to take this further still, for Room With a View? Simply put, he removed much of his own influence, handing the reins over to the disturbingly independent intelligence of computer software instead. The new series is loosely based on the narrative of a Mediterranean vacation,” he says. “I have had Mediterranean vacations, but I never actually travelled to a place for this project.” Instead he asked himself: if I were to go on holiday, what are the most basic images I might take? “I make an image,” he says, “and when it’s sort of finished, I give certain parts of it to the software. The software analyses the image and recreates it on its own, via the knowledge and the analysed data it has applied.” Effectively, Albdorf allowed this software to guess at what he was aiming towards, he says. “I’m not that interested in creating the perfect illusion, but rather something that seems an illusion on first view – then you see the flaws, and you see that it’s digitally merged together. From a distance it sort of works, then you take a closer look and everything falls apart.”

The results are compelling; Albdorf presents the familiar screen of a gift shop window, and in it, a collection of Roman statues oddly morphing into one another. In another, the fragments of a mirror seem to reflect a beautiful mountainous landscape – only neither are real.

The show encompasses video work, as well as Albdorf’s crisp photographs – and hung on the wall, his subject matter seems somehow realer, stranger. If furniture catalogues and billboards often use computer-generated imagery in the place of photographs already, might this be the future of travel photography too, I ask? No, Albdorf’s work seems to answer. Rather, it’s its present.

Thomas Albdorf. Roof With a View runs until September 9, 2018, at Foam Museum, Amsterdam.