Over the past three and a half decades, Mark Klett has pioneered and refined the art of rephotography. In 1977, Klett, with Ellen Manchester and JoAnn Verburg, began the Rephotographic Survey Project, locating the vantage points of iconic 19th-century photographs of the American West and meticulously reframing these views from 100 years prior. The new photographs were published alongside the originals in Second View (1984). Informed by Klett’s training as a geologist and his reaction to the New Topographics exhibition, Second View chronicles human interaction with the landscape and throws into sharp relief the different time scales of human development and geologic change. Twenty years later, Klett and Arizona State University graduate students revisited these landscapes for Third View, Second Sights (2004), which included a DVD with videos, interactive maps, digital panoramas, audio recordings and photographs — materials that moved the experience outside the camera’s frame, linking geography, personal history, media and the mythology of the American West, across multiple points in space and time.
Klett has come to realize that the potential of rephotography is greater than simply tracking change; it can touch on the experience of time itself. For recent projects in Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, he and collaborator Byron Wolfe mined an incredible profusion of imagery — 19th-century photographs and paintings, modernist visions of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, innumerable postcards and tourist snapshots — to construct spatially cohesive panoramas spanning a century and a half. Through these works, we understand these places as cultural sites whose significance comes from an accumulation of human interventions, interactions and imaginings. Klett has also ventured into urban environments, with an exhibition commemorating the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and panoramas of Barcelona incorporating five centuries of images.
To accompany this slideshow, Places photo editor Aaron Rothman (who helped with video editing on Third View) interviewed Mark Klett about his rephotography.
Aaron Rothman: You’ve moved in your work from a subtractive process — creating a single photograph that excludes everything outside the frame — to an additive process — constructing panoramas out of images from multiple sources across many years, decades or centuries. Can you talk about this evolution?
Mark Klett: I think it was a changing understanding of place that prompted the shift in my methods. Working in Yosemite was eye-opening because it’s a place of high image density. Large numbers of photographs were made over time in distinct, concentrated locations. Places like Glacier Point or Lake Tenaya, for example, have been chosen by many, many photographers for over 130 years. The photographs show the same landscape with slight variations in position and framing. The pictures look different, but the landscape itself has hardly changed at all.
I started to see these photographs as overlapping layers in time, much like the layered strata in rock. Each layer represented another moment, and they could be rearranged and compared. They could be placed in sequence or side by side, or one image could be placed over the top of another so that they share features in the landscape. The landscape could be seen to flow across several images stacked in time. The decision about which pictures to use, and how to order them, was more additive than subtractive. I understood that new pictures could be added to an image to create new layers and that new time documents would result.
That’s a fundamentally different kind of process than one which edits out information through the framing and cropping of a single image. The ability to work in multiples — which was really a shift brought about by the tools available in digital photography — created new opportunities. This was in turn reinforced by working with Byron Wolfe, who amplified the process and shared in those decisions.
AR: : The equipment you used for Second View was not too far removed from what the 19th-century photographers used. Now you are working with Byron to develop interactive projects for the iPad. Does new technology fundamentally change how you understand the experience of landscape?
MK: Technology is a double-edged sword. It’s compelling and useful in the way that new toys inspire play, but it’s also timebound and gets old fast. Technology used for its own sake isn’t very interesting. But in the best situation it can generate new questions and enable you to focus on a subject or an idea; you forget about the bells and whistles.
We have to remember that photography has always been a technology-driven medium. If that weren’t the case, we’d still be making daguerreotypes. What I like about digital processes is how they enable a new kind of experimentation with images. If we hadn’t been able to integrate several photographs into one document we’d never have imagined how they could be reorganized into the various forms of visual mashup we’re exploring now. We wouldn’t have thought, for example, to link the era of exploration to the era of high modernism in a single photograph. The process increased our ability to visualize space and time relationships.
AR: Is there a difference for you between your projects in cities, such as San Francisco or Barcelona, and in national parks such as Yosemite and the Grand Canyon?
MK: Absolutely. In a place like the Grand Canyon little physical change happens in the span of 100 years. That’s hardly the blink of an eye in geological time. Comparing historic photographs of the canyon to the present day view, you’re always looking for minute changes that are hardly visible.
But cities are always changing; even a year can make a huge difference. In San Francisco I worked with the 1906 earthquake and fire photographs, which showed a city destroyed by natural catastrophe and human error. Very little of that city remains, but there’s enough left today that it creates an interesting reversal of the Grand Canyon experience. You have to discover the small parts of the view that are still there — buildings, monuments, streets, trolley lines. It’s a new urban matrix surrounding small artifacts from the past.
Barcelona was especially challenging in that there’s one vantage — Miramar on Montjuïc — that has been used to create panoramic views of the city for almost 500 years. So this is a vantage point of high image density over a long time. But unlike Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the city has changed so much that each panoramic image represents a city that looks utterly new. I decided to use small pieces of that image history to create a new, layered composite. The parts come from various times but share common buildings and landscape features that can be identified within the wide space of the larger view. The result is like an advent calendar of the city built over centuries, with small windows opening to show another layer of time. The view is the opposite of omnipotent and uniform; rather it’s fragmented, a mashup. I see that as emblematic of how we see the urban world today.