Past Photos in Present Landscapes: Rephotography as a Method in Environmental History

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This is the fifth post in the Relict Landscapes and the Past in the Present series edited by Paul Hackett

A hand holding out a historic image in front of the same location in present-day.
Figure 1: Placing historical photographs in the landscape. The historical photo shows a small stone fortress, constructed in the 1800s as a destination site. In the present background, a tall telecommunications tower has taken its place. Photo by Finn Arne Jørgensen.

A hand holds a printed photograph up against a landscape, the white-framed faded colors of the old photograph sharply contrasted against the vibrant green of the forest scene. The sharp left edge of an asphalt path continues seamlessly into the perfectly overlaid gravel path on the photograph. On top of the hill, a tall tower with parabolic dishes and antennas reaches into the sky over the photograph, which only shows us a low stone fortress. This whole scene too, is a photograph, taken on a relatively new iPhone, on a walk through the Sørmarka urban forest in Stavanger. We brought with us a small stack of historical photos taken in Sørmarka at different points in time, aiming to find the exact locations the photos were originally taken with the intention of reshooting the scene.

Our walk was heavily inspired by rephotography, or repeat photography, which originated as a scientific practice in the mid 19th century. Through photographic time-series, scientists can trace changes in landscapes over time. Rephotography can be comparative with only two points: then and now, before and after; or it can be a series of photos, in essence making a very slow timelapse. We have all seen such images, in particular of melting glaciers. The U.S. Geological Survey runs such projects. But also artists like Peter Funch, who recreates postcard images of landscapes changed by human activities, use the techniques and motives pioneered in the sciences.

Such images, whether created by scientists or artists, have didactic or political power. They are often used to mobilize interest and encourage action. Rephotography does not only generate data, it also tells stories and helps create relationships between people and places. Environmental historians such as Finis Dunaway have explored the impact of photography on environmental movements, demonstrating that images hold real power to shape environmental values.

Our walk in Sørmarka is a contribution to a larger European research project on the role of digital technologies in shaping people’s experiences of fragile and vulnerable environments. While most of the other teams on the project explored contemporary digital technologies and platforms as used in remote sites such as natural parks and ostensibly pristine nature, we in the Stavanger team turned our attention to our own backyard and the layering of histories in what can only be called new nature.

Sørmarka is a fascinating place for environmental historians. It is a large urban forest located in Stavanger and bordering on the neighboring municipalities Sandnes and Sola (and also on the University of Stavanger campus). It immediately presents as a forest, mostly with “low-quality” pine trees. Crisscrossing the park are trails and paths of varying characters and condition. There is a small football field, some grill huts, and ponds with endangered newts. There is a small deer population that I often see, as well as many rabbits, but also rich bird life, including tawny owls, feral pheasants, a resident flock of magpies that are in a constant feud with the local crows, and so on. There are supposedly the occasional badgers and possibly foxes, though I haven’t seen any. There are patches of invasive and red-listed Japanese knotweed. But there are also fields with grazing cattle in the summer.

People use Sørmarka a lot, for recreation, walking their dogs, running, and sledding in the winter. But the land is also valuable for potential development. As a result, there are constant debates about urban encroachment and environmental protection. Sørmarka is deeply appreciated by many, yet ecologically, it is nothing special. It is ordinary, everyday nature, under pressure from urban growth and environmental change. This also makes it a prime site, in my opinion, for using rephotography to think about its past, its present, and its future.

The interesting thing is that Sørmarka is not a classic story of pristine nature gradually becoming more and more degraded (which in some way is the perspective of the larger project that we wanted to challenge). A hundred years ago, Sørmarka was agricultural land, and supposedly not even very good land. In the 1920s and 1930s, a local school project invited children to plant trees, so gradually the naked hills became a forest. For the generations who have since then grown up with Sørmarka as a forest, this became the baseline. Sørmarka is new nature.

Rephotography as practice aligns very well with the project’s methodological ambition to explore the interplay between walking, sensing, and technology. When we walked in Sørmarka with our historical photos, collected from archives and databases, we had to find the exact location that the original photo was taken from. We needed to study the original and relate it to the present landscape, looking for clues. We had to walk in the footsteps of previous photographers, and consider what they might have seen. At the same time, we made the walk our own, seeing what we saw. In this span between the photographed past and the sensed present, contrast and comparison became unavoidable. Rephotography is a process of aligning perspectives, and something that allows for – or even demands – reflection on change and value. And what we realized is that when we get into the work, being on the site, rephotography becomes about interpretation rather than just recreation.

Figure 2: Left – Stavanger Telegraph Station, unknown date, unknown photographer. Right – same building, different landscape, 2023. Photo by Finn Arne Jørgensen.

Jason Kalin has argued that rephotography is a social practice for remembering, “a practice of actively constructing and inhabiting memories and their times and places while also incorporating them into the present as active forces.” Here lies the methodological potential of rephotography not simply as a tool for tracing observable change in the landscape, but for connecting people and the places they inhabit. Evoking the scholarship of the late Joy Parr, landscape change is sensed and experienced with the whole body. These landscapes are part of us, and we are part of them. Rephotography allows us to bridge time and space, complicating the simple stories of then and now, before and after, good and bad, wild and tamed, nature and culture.

Feature Image: Striking (stereoscopic?) photo of the area with radio masts, 1910-1920. Photographer Michael Eckhoff. (Stereofotografi. Radiomaster ved Ullandhaug. Stavanger Byarkiv)
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Finn Arne Jørgensen and Malin Kristine Graesse

Finn Arne Jørgensen is professor of environmental history at University of Stavanger, Norway and co-director of the Greenhouse Center for Environmental Humanities. Malin Kristine Graesse is postdoctoral researcher in environmental humanities at University of Stavanger. She is an art and design historian with a PhD from University of Oslo. The authors work together on the large European research project DigiFREN, which explores how digital technologies can serve as tools in sensing and experiencing endangered environments while walking through them. The Stavanger team uses rephotography as a method in this larger project.

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