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Tuesday, August 17, 2010


Keeping a visual record of changes within a landscape

A scientist ascends a mountain ash eucalyptus tree in Wallaby Creek, the Hume Plateau, near Melbourne, Australia. Using a Hasselblad XPan camera for its panorama format, Hatcher was positioned on a neighboring tree about 200 feet off the ground.

The volcanic activity this year in Iceland has me thinking about returning to that country to record the changes in the aftermath of the eruption. The field of repeat photography seems always to have fascinated photographers, as well as their audience. The main attraction for repeat photography, or “rephotography,” is the Where’s Waldo-esque fascination of looking for visual changes over time. Rephotography engages the photographic explorer and sleuth in us, since no place remains perfectly unchanged with time. In this respect, rephotography also is a simple and effective tool for scientists and other curious explorers chronicling changing landscapes. Some changes, like certain geological types, may not be apparent for many years, yet other places undergo extraordinary change in just a short time. A familiar example is Shanghai-style urban sprawl. Every state in the U.S. probably has one, if not more, of the urban-sprawl-expansion rephotography books.

Another example is a natural disaster like Iceland’s recent volcanic eruption. In the past few years, other types of landscape-changing events seem, with more frequency, to be visiting the places I typically photograph. The recurring culprit is the rising temperature worldwide, which is altering weather patterns and accelerating flora, fauna and weather changes in the mountains, forests and deserts globally. Rephotography has been at the front of the effort to record these changes and communicate the direct as well as indirect effects of climate change.

Often, adventure photographers find themselves in remote places where few photos have been taken. These photos by intrepid photographers sometimes become the foundation of a rephotography effort. I’ve spent many years exploring mountains, deserts, rivers, canyons and other remarkable land-forms, and I always try to look through my old photos when returning to former haunts. Most of these places are changing. An example is the infamous north face of the Eiger in Switzerland, a locale I first visited and photographed around 30 years ago. On my first visits, the Eiger north face had three distinct ice fields; now, the second ice field is the only prominent one that remains. The rest are nearly gone because of rising temperatures. Today, rockfall on the Eiger Nordwand has become such a problem that climbers often climb the face in winter when the freezing temperatures and ice solidify the loose rock on the wall. But you don’t always need to wait 30 or 100 years for photos to have relevancy for rephotography.

You can imagine my interest when I heard the news about the recent eruption of the volcano under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier in Iceland. I had just been to this same place a few months ago, spending about a week exploring the mountains on the fringes of the icecap. That region on Iceland’s southern coast turned out to be the most productive photography work I did during my monthlong visit in Iceland. Little did I know when I shot those images that a volcano would erupt just a few months later. That’s how quickly a rephotography project can be born. When I return to Iceland, I hope to reshoot in these same areas to see for myself the changes brought about by the eruption and floods.


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