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April 10, 2024

Roger Minick’s “Sightseer”: Fascinating Vintage Photos Captured American Tourists at National Parks in the Early 1980s

In the early 1980s, photographer Roger Minick captured a cross-section of tourists across the United States in his “Sightseer” series, a project he picked up again in the late 1990s and 2000. The determined sightseers’ fashion choices, delicious throwbacks for today’s viewer, were a big part of what drew Minick to his subjects.

“I’d be at a great distance at an overlook, and I’d see a couple arrive, get out of their car. And before I saw them or their faces, I would see what they were wearing, their colors, and I would be drawn to them for that reason,” Minick told CNN.

Those colors were missing the first time he set out to document tourists crisscrossing the American West to soak up the country’s vast national parks and wide-open landscapes.

In 1979, he shot in black and white. That was a mistake “because the colors are so interesting, the juxtaposition of what people wear and the backgrounds.” So the next year he retraced his steps, this time in color.

Minick’s interest in photographing sightseers was piqued in 1976 while he was teaching at an Ansel Adams workshop at Yosemite National Park. Teaching alongside the legendary landscape photographer, Minick noticed how visitors arriving by the bus- and RV-load would elbow through the crowd of student photographers to take smiling snapshots in front of the dramatic scenery.

“It wasn’t long, however, before I became aware of something else going on at the overlook: waves of tourists were continually arriving at the overlook’s parking lot in cars, buses and motorhomes, thrusting their way through this gauntlet of photographers not only for a clear view of the famous vista but also for the obligatory snapshot of themselves proving they were there.

“After witnessing this recurring bit of theater over several days, I found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with these visitors, recognizing what a striking cross section of humanity they were. I began to see the visitors as having a specific humanity, their own classification, a genus –– Sightseer Americanus, if you will.

“Previously in my photographic career, when my projects took me into the landscape, I had tended to look on sightseers with disdain, and certainly had never considered them a “subject” I would want to photograph seriously. Yet over the course of those days I began to feel I was witnessing something uniquely American, something that I suddenly very much wanted to photograph.”

(Photos © by Roger Minick)


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