Ross Paxton grew up in Whitby, a seaside town in the north of England popular among tourists because it served as the inspiration and setting for Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Paxton was in his hometown a few years ago working on another project about the local culture when he decided to climb aboard a tour bus to take a photo. In the background of his shot stood the ruins of the imposing Whitby Abbey, and in the foreground were tourists frozen in time, looking ahead, as he saw it, “into their future.”
Paxton liked what he saw, and for the next three years, he decided to replicate that composition on tour buses all around the U.K. With a mostly fixed foreground and highly varied backgrounds, Paxtons’ series, “A General History of Timeless Landscapes,” is meant to feel like Paxton’s “journey through other people’s journeys.”
For the project, Paxton worked with an Ebony 45S large-format camera, a clunky device requiring a tripod that, on a bouncing, swerving bus, proved difficult to use. But the camera did have one advantage: It separated him from his subjects, many of whom were also holding cameras, and turned his process into just yet another sightseeing attraction.
“Nowadays people get funny about taking photos of families and things like that. But I was there with this big camera with the hood over my head,” he said. “People thought I was part of the experience.”
Once on a bus, Paxton would ride one loop around the major sites, looking through his camera the whole time to scope out the best scene. On the next go-around, he’d snap his shot, maintaining a consistent foreground, while letting the old churches and monuments in the background tell a story about humanity’s relationship to the past. On a few occasions, he also photographed on boats and trams.
Working with a limited budget, Paxton often didn’t have time to spend more than a day in each location. In a way, Paxton felt like the tourists he photographed, catching only quick, fleeting impressions of places he’d never seen before. Though, unlike tourists, who usually stay in hotels during their vacations, Paxton slept in his car after long days on the road.
While tourists are generally easy targets for ridicule, Paxton says that’s not his intention with this series. In fact, Paxton said he wants viewers to identify with his subjects, as they’re both engaged in similar activities of looking and understanding.
“I suppose what worries me about this project is that people will just look at the tourists and they’ll think, ‘Don't these people look funny?’ I’d hope people will think a bit further than these just being pictures of people on buses.” he said. “I’d like to think the series highlights all of our connection to our environment. When people look at these photographs, they’re doing the same thing as the people in the photographs. They’re trying to gauge their environment. It’s like looking in the mirror.”