Theme Travel

Travel films, such as those found in the Screen Archive South East collection, relate to a history of travellers using image-making technologies that began in the 1850s. This is a history of both professional and amateur production, first in photography and then in film, and the development of a market for the consumption of travel imagery.
The rise of photography in the 1850s marked the beginning of professional photographers taking pictures of both people and places. There was an obvious continuity between this new practice and the history of topographical watercolours and prints devoted to the representation of place. Photographers such as Francis Bedford, Francis Frith and John Thomson explored both Britain and the world and produced a photographic topography of the present. As single prints and as collections within book form, their contemporary ‘views’ of the exotic and the familiar were often romantic in nature and they became a significant part of commercial photographic practice.

This genre of travel photography also found its expression within the development of the stereoscope. Sets of stereoscopic cards devoted to a photographic tour of a particular place could be purchased for consumption on a home viewer. The magic lantern followed an identical pattern of commercial development through the sale of both photographic and lithographic sets of travel slides. Photographs, stereoscopic cards and lantern slides enabled the viewer to embark on a ‘virtual’ journey.

The appearance of what we still refer to as “holiday snaps” begins in the 1890s. The availability of cheaper cameras and faster film stock widened access to photography and therefore enabled this modern form of image-making to no longer be restricted to the professional. The amateur “could press the button and we do the rest”, as Kodak announced.

Moving pictures on 35mm - the cinematograph - made its appearance in the same decade and, like photography, this new recording medium would first be the preserve of the professional. Film companies toured the world and began to first sell and then rent moving image ‘views’ and travelogues. It was not until the mid-1920s and the arrival of the new gauges of 16mm and 9.5mm that film became easily available to the amateur.

Screen Archive South East’s collection of travel films begins with this moment. Like the travel genre as a whole, it presents the tourist’s and the traveller’s gaze. As a collection, it represents both people and places that are usually different from the observer in terms of race, ethnicity and class. To position this work in terms of ‘difference’, ‘otherness’ and ‘stereotyping’ provides us with a framework for the analysis of these representational practices.

A great deal of the collection consists of holiday films, primarily to Europe. For instance in Scotland, June 1929, three chauffeur-driven cars take a Sussex family on a tour through the Highlands. It features the landscape of lochs and villages and the arrival of fishing boats at Oban. Joseph Emberton’s film, Christmas Cruise – Trip to Africa (ca. 1935), illustrates the cruise he shared with his wife and friends to the Mediterranean. Travelling on a German passenger ship that flies a Nazi flag, the film juxtaposes life on board with a visit to Morocco.

Trips beyond Eurpoe to Africa and Asia, acquire a more pronounced ethnographic character. Java Tour. Christmas 1929. Batavia to Soerabaya en Voiture(1929) is an amateur record of a motor-holiday around the Indonesian island of Java. Made by Dr Catherine Burne, a medical doctor from Sussex, her 16mm camera records her family’s trip through scenes of village life, temples, work in paddy and tobacco fields, a funeral procession, children dancing in a street and the physical landscape of forests, waterfalls and a volcano. The 16mm colour film, [Outing to a Zoo; Trip to Germany; African Village] (ca. 1947), concentrates on bare-breasted African women with a rural setting as they pose in arranged compositions. This objectification draws our attention to the contrived nature of this film, as the film-maker literally frames and ‘captures’ the exotic ‘other’. Unlike other films that identify the specificity of place and people through inter-titles, this film presents the generalised, generic African within Africa.

Colour films of Indonesia, China, Korea and Japan in the late 1930s by Tor H. Wistrand, a Swedish diplomat, explore this wide area of Asia just before the Japanese invasions of Korea and China and the start of the Second World War. At a time when colour film was still a rarity, this work draws attention to the contrasts between tradition and modernity as represented by dress, industry and tourism.

Today travel films continue to be made but on the modern format of digital video. This genre as a whole, from the Screen Archive South East perspective, is largely a history of the white middle class with a film camera either on holiday or on a tour. Like the holiday photograph, work of this genre will always serve as a personal memento of being away from home, triggering memories when viewed after the event. From a cultural perspective, it also becomes associated with the phenomena of travel and tourism, and, in particular instances, with “the spectacle of the other”.


S. Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, Open University, 1997.