Rephotographic Survey Projects

A rephotographic survey is an attempt by a documentary photographer/scholar to understand changes in the landscape by making a contemporary photograph at the same spot as a historical one and comparing the two images. The passage of time in these photographic pairs is often a reflection of human impact on the land. This method was pioneered in the 1970s as part of a movement called New Topographic Photography. One of the earliest and most successful rephotographic projects was Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project, which rephotographed the works of well-known nineteenth-century photographers of the West.

Second View contains seventeen rephotographic pairs of images from Nevada. All of the earlier photographs were taken by Timothy O'Sullivan in 1867 and 1868, when he served on the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel survey led by Clarence King. Areas covered include the Reese River and Comstock Mining Districts, the environs of Fallon, Pyramid Lake, and Steam Boat Springs. Photographs from the 1970s show steep declines in population in the boomtowns of Austin and Virginia City.

The New Topographic movement, which began in the late 1960s, was an effort by younger photographers to bring greater realism to the field of landscape photography. They believed that the pristine and romantic landscape views of photographers, such as Ansel Adams, gave a false impression of the western landscape. The growth of major urban centers, such as Las Vegas and Phoenix, combined with such activities as mining and ranching, have placed a human stamp on western lands. By including such human elements as roads, strip malls, and tailings piles in their work, New Topographic photographers believed that they were presenting a more truthful picture of the West.

In the 1970s, Arizona photographer Mark Klett led a team of photographers and art historians in a project to rephotograph the western landscape images of noted nineteenth century photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan. Given the eminence of the original photographers, the team took special care to match the exact locations, times of year, times of day, and even focal lengths of the lenses, in order to precisely match the originals. With remote sites, little change might be seen. However, photographs of places that have been dramatically touched by human presence show striking changes. For example, in a rephotograph of an 1867 view of Pyramid Lake by Timothy O'Sullivan, a significant drop in water level is clearly visible. This difference in water level suggests urban growth and the rise of agriculture owing to the Newlands Reclamation project.

From 1997 to 2000, Mark Klett worked with another group of photographers and a writer to update the Second View rephotographic project. In Third Views, Second Sights: A Rephotographic Survey of the American West, they revisited and photographed many of the same locations that had been photographed more than twenty years before.

The rephotographic method has become a popular way for artists, scholars, and communities throughout the country to better understand change to the landscape over time. Rephotographic surveys have been done in communities as diverse as Madison, Wisconsin and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Three scholars at the University of Nevada, Reno—documentary photographer Peter Goin, historian Elizabeth Raymond, and archivist Robert Blesse—produced a rephotographic survey of Lake Tahoe entitled Stopping Time. This work is notable, in part, because the changes it illustrates are often from the nearly total clear cutting of forests in the nineteenth century in order to build Virginia City, to a more pristine appearance in the late twentieth century when Lake Tahoe's principal use was for recreation and tourism.

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