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The Taj Mahal, 'Volte-face'|© Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
The Taj Mahal, 'Volte-face'|© Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
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Photographer Oliver Curtis Captures The World's Greatest Sights In 'Volte-face'

Picture of Harriet Clugston
Updated: 20 September 2016
An Idiot Abroad fans will remember Karl Pilkington’s memorable visit to the Great Pyramids of Giza. They never show you, he pointed out, the encroaching edges of the city, a dirty nappy whizzing through the air, in the brochures. No less memorable were his observations about the stunning Monastery at Petra — you’re better off living in one of the rather less impressive holes opposite, he argued. The idea buried within the waffle, that our perception of the planet’s most spectacular landmarks suffers from a bottlenecking effect, is one explored — albeit with infinitely more poetry — by photographer Oliver Curtis, in his new London exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

For Curtis, turning your back on beautiful landmarks can offer a whole new dimension in which to appreciate them. For him, it all began at those pyramids. Turning away from the structures that have fascinated the world for time immemorial, Curtis looked towards the city of Giza, but what he saw there held an allure and beauty of its own — distinct from that of the monuments themselves, perhaps more mundane, but compelling none the less.

Christ the redeemer, Rio de Janeiro|©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Christ the Redeemer, Rio de Janeiro | ©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Reichstag| ©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Reichstag | ©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting

‘Immediately in front of me and under my feet’, he recalls, ‘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 mid-distance 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.’

The Wailing Wall|©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
The Wailing Wall | ©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting

In Volte-face (both the name of the exhibition and upcoming book), Curtis’ photo series — taken over four years — extends his audience an invitation to turn away with him, and see the over-photographed sites of the world from a fresh perspective. Opposite the Eiffel Tower, a severed tree trunk stands before a Parisian building, effortlessly painting a melancholy picture of man’s valuing of the artificial over the natural, striking down a living structure simply to secure a prime view of a man-made one. A custodian resting by the Christ the Redeemer structure gazes out at the rocky outcrops of Guanabara Bay, the Wonder simply his place of work, his ‘lack of awe born from daily exposure’. Turning away from the Monument to Democracy, Curtis’ camera finds a chain link railing, a mundane object rendered strangely significant by virtue of our knowledge of its location, symbolising the timeless dialectic between Lord and bondsman.

Stonehenge|©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Stonehenge | ©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Lenin Mausoleum|©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting
Lenin Mausoleum | ©Oliver Curtis/Chloe Nelkin Consulting

In such ways, the images construct their own subtle narrative, a homage to the overlooked counter views and forgotten faces lying obscured by the pull of the landmark, but no less a part of its contextual identity within the contemporary world.

Statue of Liberty|©Oliver Curtis/Oliver Nelkin Consulting
Statue of Liberty | ©Oliver Curtis/Oliver Nelkin Consulting

Volte-face runs from Monday 19 September – Friday 14 October 2016 at the Royal Geographical Society.

Opening hours: Monday to Friday, 10am5pm, Saturday 10am4pm.

Royal Geographical Society, 1 Kensington Gore, London SW7 2AR, UK, +44 20 7591 3000