Postmodern literature like Don DiLillo’s novel White Noise immerse the reader into life’s conundrums and absurdities. At one-point the story diverges into a vignette about the most photographed barn in America. I read this book shortly after working three consecutive summers in Yellowstone National Park and it forever made an impression on me and shaped many aspects of my creative nonfiction that asks the reader–What type of tourist are you?
Several days later Murray asked me about a tourist attraction known as the most photographed barn in America. We drove 22 miles into the country around Farmington. There were meadows and apple orchards. White fences trailed through the rolling fields. Soon the sign started appearing. THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED BARN IN AMERICA. We counted five signs before we reached the site. There were 40 cars and a tour bus in the makeshift lot. We walked along a cowpath to the slightly elevated spot set aside for viewing and photographing. All the people had cameras; some had tripods, telephoto lenses, filter kits. A man in a booth sold postcards and slides — pictures of the barn taken from the elevated spot. We stood near a grove of trees and watched the photographers. Murray maintained a prolonged silence, occasionally scrawling some notes in a little book.
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
He fell silent once more. People with cameras left the elevated site, replaced by others.
We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura. Can you feel it, Jack? An accumulation of nameless energies.”
There was an extended silence. The man in the booth sold postcards and slides.
“Being here is a kind of spiritual surrender. We see only what the others see. The thousands who were here in the past, those who will come in the future. We’ve agreed to be part of a collective perception. It literally colors our vision. A religious experience in a way, like all tourism.”
Another silence ensued.
“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,” he said.
He did not speak for a while. We listened to the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons, the rustling crank of levers that advanced the film.
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?” he said. “What did it look like, how was it different from the other barns, how was it similar to other barns?”
What do you see? What connections does this passage make to your own experiences as a tourist?
Permission must be granted by JeriWB to use the image in this post.
And true of all sorts of “must see” places and works of art, too. The crowd around the Mona Lisa, Starry Night or The Scream, changes the painting. The dialog between the observer and the observed changes. Click, click, click, flash, flash, flash… it gets swallowed up in the frenzy.
Candy, your comment brings back memories of seeing The Scream when some of Munch’s painting were in NYC. I had more fun taking pictures of the people taking pictures than I did of actually looking at the painting itself.
Talk about The Scream, you might just get a kick out of this blog 🙂
Jennifer, I’ll be sure to check it out. Thanks so much.
I have to admit, this “brought me up short”, as they say. So I find myself thing about the times before the camera…when people really HAD to look, thinking it may be the last look they would ever have….imprinting the image on the brain soundly enough so it might be easier to recall, rather than relying on a photo or a postcard to do the work for them. I think what gets missed is the feeling you have AS you look…as you try to commit a thing or beauty to memory. Because that’s what becomes infused with the image… the emotion it brings .
Jacquie, well put. Even though I took a ton of pictures when I worked in Yellowstone, I always made a point to put the camera away at times and just SEE all the beauty around me. The way we see things has also changed too now that we can take so many digital pictures. Remember what it was like to only have 24-exposures on a roll of film?
First before I forget Jeri, I had to go to Safari to read the comments. For some reason on the Chrome browser, commenters avatars get so big (yes I did try zoom in and zoom out and clearing cache_) their images hide the image and some of their words. My husband and I are pretty close to the same kind of tourist, thank God. If we weren’t I don’t think a holiday would be as wonderful as they are. We are both inquisitive when we arrive at a destination. Like the questioner in your story snip here. I think we take it all in because we will comment while there, “Are you seeing that?” or “This makes me feel…” Lovely post!
Thanks for letting me now about the avatars. I noticed it on my iPhone too, so I’m not sure what’s up. Inquisitive travelers are the best 🙂 How can one not be a curious traveler, and yet those types of tourists are everywhere.
Being from the Rockies, the connection when thinking about experiences is the working summer vacations on my cousin’s ranch during my childhood.
That particular barn has a lot more to it than most barns do, side door, work areas not so close to where the animals are, and heaven knows what else.
Glynis, interesting how your background influences the way you see the barn. For me, when I took the picture my quest become all about getting the mountains just right in the background. That same old barn on a flat field in Kansas would have an entirely different effect.
I love this post Jeri, and a great diversion for your usual work in your blog. As you know I love this photo, but people are indeed like sheep, and will flock in droves if given the slightest encouragement. As for myself as a tourist, I will put myself in a crowd if I really,really,really want to see something , but mostly I tend to look at something else. I went to the Uffizi in Florence, and the lines were so untenable we went to a more modern museum across the street that was virtually empty. The work was fantastic and in a wonderful setting. There’s only so much you can take in after all. Often it’s little finds such as that i find the most memorable.An amusing start to my week then:-)
Kathy, not to mention this is a great quickie post too 🙂 My fondest and most hilarious memories of crowds clamoring around a sight would be all the times I watched Old Faithful go off in Yellowstone. I still regret never going there at night to watch when nobody else was around, but I worked in a different park location and just never made the point to do so. I still might one of these days.
I understand the sentiment of this post Jeri and have had similar thoughts in the past when I see the photographing of an image become more an obligation than the capturing of a personal experience. I have seen it many time where, correctly or not, I have wondered why someone in the middle of what could be an intensely personal once in a life time experience, miss out on the most profound part of it because they were more involved with capturing a still, or video, of the landscape. In my opinion a photo is a bookmark, a reminder, a jogger of memories. It can also be something beautiful, artistic, wonderful, and even a surprise if it captures images you were not expecting. The barn is gorgeous but not because of the barn. I really liked this post Jeri.
Tim, just as I mentioned to Glynis imagining that barn on a flat Kansas prairie makes it loose it’s beauty. There are probably tons of barns and outbuildings like the one in the photo, but this barn is lucky enough to have the Grand Tetons for a backdrop. It’s good to hear you liked this post. Maybe I will do more in this vein.
This is a thought-provoking post. I love the look of old barns like this, but I suspect many of the people there wouldn’t have given it a second look had it not been for all the publicity about it being the most photographed barn. And many didn’t really see it at the time either, just snapped a photo. Sometimes I do follow the crowd to see what all the hype is about, but usually plan my outings around things that interest me.
Donna, and some of the strangest things get hyped too. In my hometown, a reclusive man built a house that was a cross between a spaceship and a smattering of bright cartoon murals. It became a tourist attraction for my town just because of its oddity. And of course, it was available on a postcard as well 😉
I like that question Jeri…What kind of a tourist? I have seen two types – the real ones and the pretenders. The former go for the pleasure of those moments that enrich our personality, the moments that we carry in our ‘inward eye’, the moments full of exhilaration. They click only when they feel they have savored the surroundings and would like to preserve those memories. The latter just move around like cattle, vague about their likings and do as the ‘Romans do’.
I enjoyed reading your story, very subtle and profound.
Balroop, hahahah “like cattle” indeed. Time and again I’ve had that exact same thought, but most strongly when working in Yellowstone. The crowds that gather to take pictures around Old Faithful Geyser are particularly amusing 😉
Truly interesting dear Jeri… As I read your post one book came to my mind: ”Death of a Salesman” by Arthur Miller.
It seems clear that Postmodern literature is mostly characterized by reliance on narrative techniques such as fragmentation, paradox, and the unreliable narrator; intertextuality, irony and multiple perspectives…
Going further, I’d say I am with you when you highlight these two sentences as being (“un”) properly postmodernist!.
-“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn”.
-“They are taking pictures of taking pictures,”…
Thanks for sharing!. A great reading indeed, dear JWB. Best wishes, Aquileana 😀
Aqui, your comments remind me that one of these days I need to get around to writing a post on semiotics.
How interesting, Jeri! This is a departure from your usual writing here. I suppose the viewers become part of the art, in themselves, without realizing it…
Christy, glad you like my unexpected post. If I was still posting twice a week, I would include more like this one. The viewer of a piece of artwork does complete the artistic transaction, so to speak, and the truly captivating thing to me is how we will each see the objects before us in our own way due to the myriad of things that have influenced our perspective.
Always deep and interesting, Jeri.
For me, the barn is like a poem.
One sees and interprets from one’s own experience, one’s own history.
For me, the barn is not just a barn, but a state of mind.
Kim, you are a beautiful soul. It’s also interesting how we change over time and will notice different things depending on where we are at that point in life.
It seems as though the marketing of this as a photographic site has actually changed what you see even though the barn is the same. When I recently visited Wyoming I thought one of the differences between Yellowstone and Teton national parks was the way Yellowstone was set up as a series of attractions while the attraction of Teton seemed to be ever present and somewhat more natural. So while I was there I think I preferred Teton but in retrospect, Yellowstone is more memorable. No clue what that all means Jeri. Stream of consciousness commenting.
Ken, love the stream of consciousness commenting 😉 I’d agree too. Yellowstone is one in-your-face natural wonder right after the other, but the Tetons must be enjoyed in an entirely different way.
What I would really like to see is a picture of all the people taking their pictures! You have to wonder at what point did someone decide that was the most photographed barn in America? And then how long would it have continued to be so, without all the signs and hoopla? And I love how he describes the sound of the film advancing. You don’t hear that anymore, with digital cameras. What a writer.
Meredith, that act of taking pictures has changed and yet also stayed the same. I love to take pictures of people taking pictures at places like art museums and national parks. I like to think about that constitutes an “authentic” experience. There are no easy answers to that one.
I’m a picture taker. I want to remember the moment, and usually after my picture, I stand in admiration. As for the barn, I wouldn’t go as far as seeing the most photographed barn.
We recently went to Arizona and my husband and I said we had to see the Grand Canyon since we were there. It was gorgeous, sublime, and made me realize there’s so much beauty in the world. I was separated from human chaos going on in the world and for those several hours I experienced pure joy.
Denise, so glad you got to see the Grand Canyon. I’ve only been once, but have been wanting to get back and see it again with “new eyes.”
Jeri, I wish I had that barn sitting on my property – it’s gorgeous. You made me feel better about something. I always get so caught up in the moment that I forget to take pictures. If I had been at this barn ‘viewing’, I would have checked out the barn from all angles and hopefully remember to take a picture as I was leaving. Interesting post.
Lenie, it makes me feel good to know this post lightened your day a bit. You raise an interesting point about taking a look at something from all angles.
I love this post Jeri – both from the perspective of a traveler and the resident of an Island where every square inch is considered fair game for tourists. One of the most spectacular photographic opportunities here is sunrise (or sunset) atop Haleakala Crater. I’ve lived here most of my life, hiked through Haleakala a dozen times, and it never ceases to amaze me to see people snapping photos of each other with the majesty of that view as little more than a backdrop. As for me, I’m the kind of traveler that likes to get off the beaten path – I’d never go to a “most photographed” anything, but I have to admit as barns go, that’s a pretty great looking one. 🙂
Marquita, I just realized about a week ago that you live in Hawaii. I can imagine the tourons must get to you at times, but what a gift to live in such beauty.
I often found that while taking photographs in Norway, I was really missing the scenery and being I the moment. I was not even really seeing what I went there to see. Finally I just had to put my camera down and fully immerse myself in the beauty and let the others snap away. Funny thing was, when I got home and looked at the photos and showed them to others the one thing I found myself saying to them repeatedly “the pictures don’t do it justice.” And they don’t. It wasn’t even worth it after all.
Susan, I go back and forth on whether taking pictures takes me away from or puts me in the moment in new and exciting ways. Taking a ton of pictures is akin to trying out different revision strategies on a piece of writing in a way.
Nice and subtle pose, Jeri. Sometimes I wonder what people did before the camera. Not least when I see jhow people take pictures of almost everything and post them on Facebook. Getting back to tourism I’m not a typical tourist. Normally go and visit people I know and enjoy life with them. According to Balroop Singh’s description of different types of tourists I suppose I’m the real one.
Catarina, I have no doubt you’re the “real” type of tourist. I admire your lack of artifice.
How many more barns are out there that no one has seen yet? They are sitting in a field, abandoned long ago, waiting for someone to photograph it. It is funny how something “catches on” and everyone then needs to see it, but ignored it before it was popular.
William, so true. There’s always going to be some new old thing that gets touted as “not to miss” and then becomes all the rage once deemed so.
As always, you’ve convinced me to go out and find a book. I think that aside from your amazing posts, that’s the main thing I love about this blog. You always give me something new.
“What was the barn like before it was photographed?”
I always wonder similar things when I’m visiting a place like the barn that people just have to capture in their smartphones/dslrs. Do you think that the author was trying to convey the idea that maybe we shouldn’t be taking so many shots of these places, that they’re better left unphotographed?
Duke, I aim to please. There’s a lot of stuff rattling around in this head of mine and I like to make connections between various topics, which might be why too that it took me so long to arrive at the eclectic writing focus I now have. The paradox of the modern age seems to be our desire to be in the moment while also wanted to quantify and catalog everything.
Many events in our lives are made better by being shared experiences. Why did you go visit the barn? To see the barn, or to share the experience with Don DiLillo? Why do we pay money to see movies in the theater when we can view them by ourselves at home? Because watching movies, going to theater and a concert gain extra meaning by being shared experiences. We all yearn for a sense of community with others. Unfortunately, the barn became a photo-op and no longer that undefinable experience of sharing something special with your community.
Jeannette, but at the same time there is a bit of irony in how people flock to some of the more natural sites that are intended to be a place to find a little bit of distance from the maddening crowd and pace of society.
Just Wow… I loved this. I have never been able to put in words what has been written here. Well said. Very well said. So now I think everyone who has not seen and photographed the barn will have to arrange to do so. LOL
Cheryl, this is the only one of DeLillo’s books that I’ve read, but I’m sure his others would be just as good. This passage has always spoken to me though.
This is the age old question “if a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it does it make a sound?” The presence of the observer changes the experience. You can add to this the nature of those you observe with. Would the experience and the view change if those who view are a family on a long journey, tired and annoyed from the time on the road. The kids are picking at each other, finally free from the car. The husband and wife fighting because they missed a turn 20 miles back. Maybe if they came to see the same barn again 20 years later it would look like something else entirely.
Jon, that is so true. I can recall many an annoyed tourist family in my park employment days. I can also think back to all of the times I convinced myself it was okay to skip a site because I was too pooped, but more often than not, I don’t try to let myself do that.
Re The Barn. I must say my eyes are first drawn to the majesty of the mountains. Then when I see the land-locked barn, it gives me a sense of isolation. I’m a mermaid really. I love to be by the sea. So that may explain my reaction to this photo 🙂
Jennifer, thanks for stopping by. Seems like I’m opposite of you that way. I’ve always been a mountain girl 😉
and deservedly so.