The view from the Taj Mahal. Oliver Curtis

Oliver Curtis photographs the overlooked side of iconic sites.

Since 2012, Oliver Curtis has visited a slew of landmarks, camera in hand: Giza, Buckingham Palace, the Colosseum, the Statue of Liberty. Yet all of them are absent from his photographs.

For his series Volte-face, or “about-face,” the English photographer took an unusual approach to sightseeing and trained his lens not on the monuments themselves, but on what they look out upon. In doing so, he situates these renowned sites in a world that’s both familiar and comfortingly mundane.

Facing away from the White House. (Oliver Curtis)

Curtis’s exhibit will be on display at the Royal Geographical Society in London this September; the press release says that Volte-face is “an invitation to turn around and see a new aspect of the over-photographed sites of the world—to send our gaze elsewhere and to favour the incidental over the monumental.”

It’s a thesis that Curtis stumbled upon four years ago, visiting the Great Pyramid at Giza. While there, he happened to turn back and look out in the direction from where he had walked. In the press release, he describes what he saw:

Immediately in front of me and under my feet, the sand of the desert was adorned with an assortment of human detritus; litter, pieces of rusted metal, a large rubber washer and a torn hessian sack. Then, in the middistance I saw a newly constructed golf course, its fairways an intense green under the late morning sun. I found this visual sandwich of contrasting colour, texture and form intriguing not simply for the photograph it made but also because of the oddness of my position; standing at one of the great wonders of the world facing the ‘wrong’ way.

Since then, Curtis has captured a host of unusual views: the haphazardly plowed circles in the landscape around Stonehenge; relaxing maintenance staff overlooking Rio de Janeiro from in front of Christ the Redeemer; a lone Kodak-branded umbrella standing in the snowy grounds before the Lenin Mausoleum.

In front of the Lenin Mausoleum. (Oliver Curtis)

It’s easy to decontextualize these sites from the places surrounding them. Most photographs imagine them as isolated entities, protected against time and change. Curtis’s focus on what surrounds them reminds the viewer that these monuments are part of a whole landscape that has a history and aesthetic in and of itself.

Groundskeeping around Stonehenge. (Oliver Curtis)
Tourists in front of the Statue of Liberty. (Oliver Curtis)
Opposite the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. (Oliver Curtis)
Workers relaxing in front of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro. (Oliver Curtis)

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