"The Life And Death Of Buildings" And What It Means To Travel

07/29/2011 09:31am ET | Updated September 27, 2011

The fact that the Empire State Building is one of the most photographed landmarks in the world is exactly the reason it is the last edifice that needs to be photographed: Everyone has seen the pictures. Yet cameras turn toward 34th and 5th. This is tourist gravity.

The spotlight is far from lonely. Every year tourists make trips across the world to see buildings that range from the giant and triangular to the domed or the henged. Our shared enthusiasm for each others architectural achievements is matched only by our desire to document them. Like great actresses, great buildings live and die on camera. (*SEE PHOTOS BELOW*)

When Joel Smith, the photography curator for Princeton museums, was considering putting together an exhibit for the tenth anniversary of 9/11, he gravitated not just toward images of the World Trade Center, but towards images of buildings aging in exactly the way that the Twin Towers never will. Less dirge than double take, "The Life and Death of Buildings" became a meditation on our visits to the world’s great man-made sites.

Smith spoke with HuffPost Travel about travelers’ most lasting images and why a map of frequently taken pictures glows nearly as bright at Ground Zero as it does in midtown.

Many of the most popular tourist sites in the world, from Chichen Itza to the Pyramids and the Coliseum are old buildings. They are spectacular, to be sure, but part of the draw seems to be their age. What do you think this says about modern travelers?

JS: What impresses me is the experience of inhabiting a space where a different sort of experience occurred, like knowing where George Washington slept or where human sacrifices took place. Mass death occurred at the Coliseum, at Chichen Itza and, in one sense, photographing these places allows you to tackle the bluntness of history while also erasing the immediacy of suffering. Visitors get to explore two types of time: Long time through the place and short time through their cameras.

Christians can see the Coliseum as a site of martyrdom, but it is has become a great icon of Rome. There is now a sense of distance.

Travelers’ photographs brought many of the world’s great structures to the masses, did the advent of photograph change our view of buildings in other ways?

JS: In the 1920s and 1930s, some architects began gaming the system by making photogenic buildings that were not actually comfortable for human habitation… Everyone can tell you that the Guggenheim is a masterpiece of modern architecture, but is it actually a great place to show art? Maybe, maybe not. Flattened into a photograph, it looks incredible.

There is a photo in the exhibit showing a pile of digital cameras all of which display, more or less, the same photo of the Coliseum. Why did you choose this photo and what do you think is interesting about it?

JS: I think it’s a puzzle picture. It is impossible to have a neutral relationship with it. I think it participates in a conversation about the way digital media has changed the nature of the photographs. You can log on to Flickr and see a million images just like these. It seems like a futile exercise. So when you do you’re doing something individualistic. It poses a question about our relationship to a world full of experiences that have already been had.

Why do you think tourists bother?

They’ve been there. Tourists can pick out their snapshots because of their atmospherics. The way it was raining and the way the sky was becomes part of the place for those people and that is unlikely to go away no matter how image saturated we get.

Do buildings age differently in different places, where cultures imbue them with different significances?

JS: The Temple of Ise in Japan is regularly reconstructed so its always fresh, yet always ancient. We don’t have that relationship with architecture in the West. The legitimacy that westerners bestow on a place like the Coliseum because it is so old is not universal. There is a photograph in the exhibit of Yaodong in China, where a Qing Dynasty compound is being reconstructed over cliff dwellings. The compound is what the Chinese expect to drive the tourist trade. If I came and saw that, I would be disappointed.

Photos of urban decay seem to have been everywhere lately. Why do you think this is and what do you think it says about our society?

JS: In familiar terms, this is just our continuing love of the picturesque. Objects that are actively experiencing time are picturesque. The patina of age is visually compelling on a sculpture or a painting.

Of course there is also a memento mori factor. These images are morbid, though not, of course, as morbid as snapshots of battlefield. Photos of urban decay allow you to look at the passage of time and at a mode of life that proved untenable.

But there is also a range of aesthetic contributions. There are plenty of websites full of almost relentless casual snapshots of abandoned amusement parks falling apart. These images are different than the ones we have in the exhibit, which are more challenging.

This exhibition is inspired in part by the tenth anniversary of 9/11. How are your try to explore that event through these photographs?

JS: Both buildings and photographs are remains of what has been. Buildings age and photos are essentially outtakes of time: Neither replicates the experience of human memory. Everyone shared the experience of thinking that they knew what the New York City skyline was. Then they didn’t know. Now there is a new normal. Photography helps mold the norms of social memory.