Not that long ago, before digital photography took off, and when cameras and photography equipment cost more than they do today, Travel Photography was the preserve of a few brave souls. They would travel to some exotic and far flung location in order to bring back a collection of images showing places and cultures we could not hope to otherwise see. As an example, think of some of the older National Geographic collections, or even earlier, the work of Francis Frith and photographers employed by Albert Kahn.
As travel became easier and tourism to these same places took off Travel Photography changed from being a glimpse of the exotic and strange to providing enticing and aspirational images for brochures and travel guides. However until relatively recently it was still the work of a few professional photographers who would head out to locations at the request of tour companies and travel guide publishers.
However in this age of digital photography and cheap access to the technology to take potentially stunning pictures I think Travel Photography needs to redefined again. When many locals in destinations that you or I might visit have access to photography and don’t have to travel anywhere to take great shots of their local area (which they also have a better knowledge of) the core market for Travel Photography becomes saturated with a surfeit of shots. As David duChemin mentioned on his blog a while back:
…the market is saturated, and anyone who wants an image of Taj Mahal can go to Flickr and find 100 photographers who’ve shot the same shot from the same angle on the same camera, and they’ll fight for the chance to give the image away in hopes of garnering a publishing credit.
So what is a Travel Photographer to do? Personally I think there are two options: quality specific shots and photo-essays.
Whilst sites like Flickr might abound with images of key landmarks and locations, a serious photographer is going to look for a different angle on a familiar subject to present it in a new and captivating light. And speaking of light, they are far more likely to work with it. Waiting for the right quality and direction of light. Overall this is hopefully going to result in a far more studied composition; a higher quality image. There will also probably be a fairly specific requirement from a client requesting images of the location in question.
The second option is photo-essays and this is where I now think the more modern definition of Travel Photography sits most comfortably.
By photo-essays I mean a collection of images that have a cohesiveness and tell a story, whether that is about the trip itself, or a culture or its history. A gallery that takes the reader along for the ride. Although you have to be careful that they are creative quality images and not just a collection of your holiday snaps. As a result this means having an idea of what you want the final output to be and conducting your research before going. (However its always advisable to remain flexible to adapt to conditions/experiences on your travels).
Personally, I don’t think the Travel Photography genre is going to disappear any time soon. But it’s clear that from its origins in the mid-1800s its definition has changed and adapted as both the available equipment and ability to travel have improved.