What is Rephotography?
Rephotography, or the practice of recreating views of previously-taken photographs, is most often used to document changes in places such as natural environments and urban landscapes, though also encompassing cultural changes and even house-remodeling photographs. Rephotography is an effective tool to help recognize change over time—not necessarily to interpret it, but certainly to recognize it. The re-photographer must choose an old image of a place that can still be identified (at least one point of reference in both the old photo and current landscape is beneficial), and retake the photo with varying degrees of precision, depending on his or her project’s goals. Some rephotographs are almost exact matches to the originals—including season and time of day—but others may merely be photographs of the same sites, whose photographers pay less attention to matching distances and frame dimensions. All rephotographs show change or continuity, and though their purpose is not usually to comment on those changes, viewers of rephotographs of landscapes may draw conclusions about them based on their knowledge of their subjects.
Beginnings of Rephotography and Contributors to the Discipline
Rephotography began gaining attention in 1977 with Mark Klett and his team of photographers, who made rephotographs of some of the 1870 U.S. government-sponsored survey photos of the American West. Klett’s first book, Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project (1984) contained these paired old and new photos and showed change (or continuity) in the western landscapes Klett’s team photographed. Twenty years later, in 1997, Klett returned with a new team to the same sites and made photographs again, and the results were published in Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West (2004). Klett’s team did more than make photographs, however; they recorded sound bytes, made videos, and conducted interviews to learn more about the places they photographed. Klett’s team presents this hodge-podge of information in the published book and accompanying interactive DVD, as well as on an interactive website, as a series of discoveries, a more complete experience than the two-dimensional one gained through a camera lens.
Klett began a new project just a few years later to document the changes in the city landscape of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake there. After the Ruins, 1906-2006: Rephotographing the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, published in 2006, documents the century of changes at various sites in the city by retaking 1906 photographs. The new San Francisco photographs are not always as exact as those in Klett’s Second and Third View projects, but Klett explains in After the Ruins’ introduction that a rephotograph is successful when “viewers are convinced they are seeing the same place. That is less about technical accuracy than visual verification.” Klett’s work with rephotographing the urban landscape joined the efforts of other photographers who had been pushing a seeming trend toward urban rephotography. Douglas Levere’s work New York Changing: Revisiting Berenice Abbott’s New York, a series of rephotographs of Berenice Abbott’s 1930s collection of New York photographs called Changing New York. Levere made copious attempts to match Abbott’s stances and shooting times and seasons, even using the same kind of camera Abbott used. Abbott herself actually aimed to make rephotographs of her originals in the 1950s, about 20 years after her book’s publication, but though she even began making rephotographs, she could not get a publisher for the new project. Another exacting urban rephotographer, Andzrej Maciejewski, painstakingly recreated William Notman’s 19th century images of Montreal in his 2003 book After Notman: Montreal Views—A Century Apart (2003). His images (and Notman’s) are also arranged on an interactive website operated by the McCord Museum of Canadian History in Montreal. Maciejewski’s rephotographs are accompanied by sound files and historical information in order to help establish contextualize the old and new photographs for viewers.
Some urban rephotography, though, is not as exacting as that practiced by Levere, and Maciejewski. Camilo José Vergara’s photographs document changes in urban landscapes by simply photographing the same places over time, not agonizing over reproducing old camera angles. Vergara’s extensive rephotography project of three urban spaces is kept online on an interactive website. Vergara made photographs in Harlem, NY, Richmond, CA, and Camden, NJ, over a period of about 25 years. Many of his pictures are taken from dissimilar stances and frames, so a picture of a building in 1980 is hardly identical in dimension or composition to a 2005 photo of the same place. Vergara’s collection tracks changes in storefronts, houses, street views, etc., and the title of his website, “Invincible Cities,” gives a clue about his project’s goals; his photos show changes in places that somehow survive through time and decay around them.
A photographer with a similar change-tracking purpose, though a much less urban one, is William Christenberry, who photographs signs, landscapes, and decaying structures in the U.S. South, particularly Hale County, Alabama, the county where Walker Evans and James Agee gathered information for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Like Vergara, Christenberry’s beginning reference points for rephotographs are not old photographs, but the places themselves. William Christenberry (2006) and William Christenberry’s Black Belt (2007) contain yearly rephotographs Christenberry made of the same sites in Hale County. His work, like Vergara’s, is less about technical matching of original photos and more about tracking change and decay, implying that the landscape and architecture of a specific place do make it unique and that the photographed sites, even a dilapidated green barn, can speak about the spaces they occupy and are therefore worthy of attention.
The groundwork laid by these photographers seems to have been sturdy, for many people appear to be catching on and trying rephotography for themselves. A quick survey of the photo-sharing site Flickr yields rephotographs under tags like "rephotography," “beautiful decay,” “Then and Now," and "Centuries of Towns and Cities." Matt Neale used 1909 postcards to conduct a 2009/2010 rephotographic survey of Leicester, England. Chris Dorley-Brown photographed from the 1980s to the present and groups many images in triptychs to show changes in buildings—even indoor photographs; one triptych is of the room in a German hospital where Karl Marx supposedly had an appendectomy, and the following two pictures show a ‘remodeling’ phase and the identically-oriented photograph of the same finished room—a photograph of a couple enjoying a new apartment. Several Flickr users superimpose original photos over rephotographs, creating a ghostly merging of the two time periods in the same photograph.
Whatever the method, it seems that more people are using rephotography to track changes in places that are important to them as a way to stay in touch with the past. A telling thread of Flickr comments under a pair of photos posted on the site perfectly illustrates how a well-executed rephotograph can open conversation about places. The original photo was a 1968 photo of a mill building in Massachusetts that had been destroyed by fire in 1981. The second photo was taken in 2007, and the area was hardly recognizable. However, the memory of the mill building lingered and sparked conversation. The few lines of comments on the Flickr site were fascinating; photographs can tell so much about what has changed, but only that much. Perhaps their most significant purpose is in unlocking dialogue—even among strangers—about the places they document.
A fairly new website seems to embrace this function of photos and the stories behind them and uses a kind of rephotography to connect people around the world to each other and to their own pasts—a Facebook-meets-Google-Maps history networking site. The site, Historypin, invites visitors to “Pin your history to the world” by uploading old photos and stories and memories of specific places, and, using GPS and Google Maps “Street View,” the site creates rephotographic views of those places by “pinning” (superimposing) the old photograph onto the current “Street View.” In this way, the site hopes to engage people with their history and their senses of place by allowing them to share old “windows” and stories in current contexts.
New (June 2010) software developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will soon perhaps allow even more people to more easily make rephotographs. Called “computational rephotography software,” it uses the “visual homing” process that guides robotic machines to an exact location. When installed on a laptop computer connected to a digital camera, the software can compare the original photograph and the image the camera sees and can give instructions about which way to move the camera to achieve an accurate result. MIT is working on a version of this software that can be loaded onto cameras themselves, which will eliminate the need for laptops in this rephotographic process. The ultimate goal, MIT says, will be an “app” for small cameras and smartphones.
Rephotography and Frisco City
Rephotography is an effective, wordless way to show the end results of change in a place. Through rephotography, two individual pictures become something else, and prompt the deeper questions about causes of the visible change. I have been collecting old photographs of the downtown area in Frisco City (what most people consider the representative heart of Frisco City) from Frisco City School yearbooks and from personal photographs loaned to me by members of the Frisco City community. I am particularly drawn to using photographs coupled with oral histories as a way of presenting a history of, or even just opening a conversation about, Frisco City. Ultimately, this site will include as many oral histories, photographs, and documents as possible concerning the downtown businesses in Frisco City. When I have accumulated more interviews, I hope to combine the multiple interview clips into a short edited video for each building. A future possibility is the change of the site to one based on an interactive map of the downtown area (which would include video clips and photos).