Dialogues With History – Rephotography & Photo Elicitation

This weeks lecture examines how photographic practitioners can use historical archives, both institutional and personal, as a springboard for engaging with the people, places and stories of the city. It does this through examining the techniques of repeat photography or rephotography as it is also known by and the technique of photo elicitation.

Berenice Abbott’s work Changing New York for instance, captured for many the city as it was in the 1930’s. Between 1997 and 2003 Douglas Levere photographed the same sites as Abbott did using an 8×10 Century Universal camera like Abbott had. attaching a transparency of Abbott’s image onto his cameras ground glass he achieved the same angle of view. He also photographed at the same time of year and time of day as Abbott had. If the weather was bad he often waited a year before trying again. The resulting work was a classic repeat photography project he entitled New York Changing.The visual dialogue the new body of work creates next to Abbott’s originals reveals how much New York has changed over the sixty years since the initial record was made.

Rephotography comes from the original concept of repeat photography. Repeat photography is a technique that has been used in the natural sciences as far back as the 1880s to monitor changes in the landscape.

Douglas Levere was influenced by Mark Klett’s work Second View: The Rephotography Survey Project. This project from the late 1970’s rephotographed sites initially recorded by William Henry Jackson and Timothy O’Sullivan in the 1860’s & 1870’s. The  Rephotography Survey Project (RSP) did images on over eighty five sites in several states.

In 1997 Klett began the next phase by returning to the same historic sites and undertaking another rephotographic survey entitled Third ViewIn a later work entitled Yosemite in Time: Ice Ages, Tree Clocks, Ghost Rivers he teamed up with Bryon Wolfe to produce a new take on the rephotography approach.

Recently there have been other new takes on the rephotography theme. The Russian photographer Sergey Larenkov takes elements from different historical eras and combines them effect in the same scene to dramatic.

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The Arcades Project

The lecture examines the work of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project who saw the Second Empire
as the prototype for the emerging capitalist world. The arcades were not only temples of consumption
filled with an emerging’phantasmagoria’ that seduced the new consumers, Benjamin also believed
that they embodied ‘wish images’ of a world transformed still beyond our reach. Benjamin coined
the phrase ‘the ambiguity of the arcades’ to reflect their dual role as both the birthplace of commodity
fetishism and a radical vision of the world as one of plenty which inspired the likes of Charles Fourier.

The Emergence of Public Space in the Modern City

The 1789 Revolution 

Politically France went from:

A absolute monarchy under Louis XVI to

a constitutional monarchy to

a republic to

a period of ‘The Terror’ to

the rule of Napoleon.

Napoleon’s rule had the appearance of a republic but was really a type of ‘military monarchy’.  Although it betrayed the republics ideals economically the new order brought a liberal system of rights & economic prosperity.

“It created the basis of the capitalist economy in France, free from governmental directives, and was regulated strictly according to the system of open competition.”

Johann Friedrich Geist – Arcades- The History of a Building Type

Property owned by the church and the nobility was expropriated. These large areas of land in central Paris taken from the church and nobility were sold to private speculators.
This lecture looks at the development of public space with the opening up of the Palais Royal. With its covered walkways lined with shops it was the first urban public space that removed the pedestrian from the threat of traffic or the weather.
After dark it drew people to its nightlife and frivolity. It developed a legendary status that attracted
the attention of the rest of Europe. Private speculators who bought land tried to emulate its success
by building a network of arcades across parts of Paris (1799-1820)  (they were also referred to as a
‘Galerie’,or ‘Passage’). Like the Palais Royal they permitted the newly developing citizenry to
experience their freedoms by allowing them to roam the city protected from traffic and the elements.

Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century

Medieval Paris


Merian Map of Paris (scale: ca.1 to 7,000), 1615

The Spatial layout of Medieval Paris was very different to the city we know today.
•No sidewalk since Roman times
•No drainage (small gutter insufficient)
•Narrow streets
•The street was a sea of mud when it rained
•Pedestrians battled carriages and carts
•No designated green areas / no public spaces

“Nothing could give a foreigner more pleasure than the sight of a Parisian with his elaborate wig, white stockings, and lace trimmed suit, as he wades through or jumps over a muddy stream, runs through the filthy streets on tiptoe, and defends himself from the dripping roof gutters with his taffeta umbrella. How he jumps into the air when he leaves the Faubourg St.Honore to eat and must dance around the dripping eaves! Piles of dirt, slippery pavement, greasy cart axles so many dangers to avoid! And yet he reaches his destination. On each corner he summons a shoe-cleaner and arrives safely with the “exception of a few spots on his stockings…”

Louis-Sebastian Mercie

 Paris am Vorabend Revolution

The Completist Strategy

W. Eugene Smith’s Pittsburgh Project

This week’s afternoon lecture featured Eugene Smith’s legendary Pittsburgh project as an example of a more extreme ‘completist’ strategy to uncovering the urban. Smith famously undertook the freelance job in 1955 after quitting Life magazine and joining Magnum. Tired of the constraints imposed by Life’s editorial board, Smith saw that Pittsburgh offered him the chance to create a new type of work that spoke of the complexity of the world itself. He wanted to take the photo-essay to new ends, to create a photo story that would depict the city as if it were ‘a single collective person’. For Smith, a photojournalist had to get ‘to the heart of something.’ Simply showing the surface was not enough. As he noted he was not content with simply being a ‘seeing’ photographer.

“The greatest responsibility of the photo historian or journalist is the search through the maze of conflictions to the island of intimate understanding, of the mind, of the soul, amid circumstances that both create and are created by – and then to render with intelligence, with artistic eloquence, a correct and breathing account of what is found, and popular fancy, myth can be damned. Meaning: to get to the guts of the matter and show the bastards as they are.

Despite the limitations of the photo-essay Smith believed that it still offered him a means of ‘coherent interpretation’ as it links the artist-journalist to the world and to their audience. In his attempt weave together the complex themes that made up Pittsburgh he drew on sources such as Joyce’s Ulysses, on Faulkner’s writing and Jazz.