What has emerged for me from this week’s topics of repeat photography and rephotography:
First, context is all. Without a powerful context or story line repeat photography – in the crude sense of then and now – does not strike me as very interesting. I am not sure it has really caught on. The Flickr Group ‘Looking into the Past’ cited by Jason Kalin (Kalin 2013: 172) has been moribund since 2016 and on Instagram the hashtag #rephotography has just 12,600 iterations.
The matter is very different with a context or story, however. Recently, before-and-after Covid-19 lockdown pictures of Venice or of smog-free views of the Himalayas from India have been hugely popular. Such images offer a visual record of a big and perhaps once-in-a-lifetime change.
Similarly effective was Now and Then, an exhibition of repeat photography by Daniel Meadows at the Bodleian Library last year in which portraits from the 1970s were shown next to re-photographs of the sitters two or three decades later (Crean 2019; Meadows 2019). The exhibition included audio recordings of the sitters describing their lives in deprived areas of northern England, and there were plenty of captions and background material including a talk and discussion with Meadows himself. In other words, this was not just the basic ‘then and now’ but a view into a story and into the lives of others.
Another recent exhibition, Shot in Soho, at the Photographers’ Gallery in London featured various photographers and their interpretations of the Soho area over the decades (Rodriguez 2019). The crucial distinction here is that each photographer offered a very clear story. A simple collection of images would not have been nearly so effective. Again, we were drawn into individual lives through the stories the photographers chose to tell.
Two more points I have picked up from this week.
First, I very much warm to the idea of repeat photography as a form of mnemonics, ‘a social practice for remembering, a particular orientation to memory, and thus a way of being in the world. Rephotography, rather than a representation of memory, suggests a practice of actively constructing and inhabiting memories and their times and places while also incorporating them into the present as active forces’ (Kalin 2013). This is very relevant because it is close to my current practice of urban photography.
Second is the perhaps unexpected conclusion that Mark Klett found emerging from his practice of rephotographing the landscapes of the early American Survey photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan (Klett 2011). What emerged was that all subsequent photographers no matter how apparently different – whether Ansel Adams or Robert Adams – had employed the same world view without realising it. They had all seen nature and man as distinct and in opposition – there is the pristine wilderness and then man despoils it – but in reality they are not distinct. Man and nature are part of the same whole, a view instinctively understood by native peoples all over the world.
So, repeat photography can have some cultural surprises hiding inside it. Another good example is the history of Afghanistan drawn out by Simon Norfolk (Norfolk 2020) and his search for the photographic locations used by the nineteenth-century photographer John Burke: war after futile war, all driven by the almost exactly the same imperial delusions and all failing in almost exactly the same way. The images – both Norfolk’s and Burke’s – tell the story together, but just one or the other alone would not.
Distinct from repeat photography is rephotography, meaning the reinterpretation, re-creation or re-staging of the past. This strikes me as very different and much more creative and interesting. I do not have any particular thoughts about it right now but perhaps I will return to the subject. I liked the interview with Jeremy Deller (Mellor 2011), however, and this set me thinking about the place of rephotography in the practices of Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, artists I really like – so I have plenty of interesting connections to follow up.
The overall connection which emerges from the whole week, however, is one word: collaboration.
CREAN, Mark. 2019. ‘Predator or Collaborator?’. Critical Research Journal [online]. Available at: https://markcrean.photography/index.php/2019/10/19/predator-or-collaborator/ [accessed 11 Jun 2020].
KALIN, Jason. 2013. ‘Remembering with Rephotography: A Social Practice for the Inventions of Memories’. Visual Communication Quarterly 20(3), 168–79 [online]. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&. [accessed 04 June 2020].
KLETT, Mark. 2011. ‘Repeat Photography in Landscape Research’. In Eric MARGOLIS and L. PAUWELS (eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Visual Research Methods. Los Angeles, Calif: SAGE, 114–31.
MEADOWS, Daniel. 2019. ‘Daniel Meadows: Now and Then’. Bodleian Libraries [online]. Available at: https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/display/daniel-meadows [accessed 11 Jun 2020].
MELLOR, David Alan. 2011. ‘Jeremy Deller Interviewed by David Alan Mellor’. Photoworks (17), 14–17 [online]. Available at: http://search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/login.aspx?direct=true&. [accessed 11 Jun 2020].
NORFOLK, Simon. 2020. ‘BURKE + NORFOLK’. Simon Norfolk [online]. Available at: https://www.simonnorfolk.com/burke-norfolk [accessed 11 Jun 2020].
RODRIGUEZ, Julian and Karen McQUAID. 2019. ‘Shot In Soho’. The Photographers’ Gallery [online]. Available at: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibition/shot-soho [accessed 11 Jun 2020].