It was a bright, clear morning when I got in my car and drove northwest out of Madison, Wisconsin. The calendar had just announced spring’s arrival, and the weather was affirming winter’s end. After following Google Maps for 45 minutes, I turned right onto Dam Heights Road, about a mile and a half north of downtown Prairie Du Sac. I drove down the sloping road and arrived at the west bank of the Wisconsin River, just below my destination: The Alliant Energy Prairie Du Sac Hydroelectric Dam, which was constructed from 1911 to 1944.
I came to the dam to recapture a set of photographic images taken by local merchant and photographer Frank Eberhart during the dam’s construction. I was interested in experiencing—first-hand—the method of repeat photography, a process whereby a photograph is recreated as closely as possible taking into consideration continuity aspects like framing, location, and time of day. “By making the new photograph at the same time of day and at the same time of year … the shadows and highlights are then faithfully reproduced, the old and new photographs can be better compared.”1 The method has been used by a range of disciplines from science to art photography, and is especially helpful for recording environmental and cultural changes in a landscape over time. However, we bring an assumption of truth to photography—that it “faithfully reproduces” reality—and repeat photography carries the additional assumption that photos will seek truth in their repetition. Yet each image functions separately as a cultural and historical document, reflecting both photographers’ and audiences’ views. Photography fascinates me because it is simultaneously precise and objective, and necessarily colored by both viewer’s and photographer’s gaze.
Do these photographs represent truth? What is the subject of repetition and what is left out? How might photographers’ cultural assumptions affect the images they capture, and in turn, the images future photographers will take? And might those assumptions be challenged?
Sebastian Finsterwalder, German mathematician and glaciologist, was an influential early practitioner of repeat photography, and a pioneer of the method as a means for data collection. In the late 1800s he used repeated photographs taken from consistent camera locations in the Austrian Alps, combined with geometric calculations, to document changes in Alpine glaciers over time.2 Due to the effectiveness of this technique, glaciologists still make extensive use of repeat photography to document glacial changes throughout the world. Beginning in 2011 Nicholas Brown’s Vanishing Indian Repeat Photography Project beautifully played with the role of repeat photography in glaciology, in service of national history. Focusing on Glacier National Park, where repeat photography has famously been used to viscerally document the recession of the park’s namesake glaciers, Brown unearthed photos of Native Americans in the park around the time of its founding in 1910. He then rephotographed these sites with the native people missing. These images drew a parallel between the disappearance of Native Americans and glaciers from the park. Imminent disappearances were used to promote tourism to the park, in the early 1900s and the present day: “Come see them before they’re gone!” The change conveyed is obvious, yet unlike Finsterwalder, discovering what changed was not the point of Brown’s documentation. Rather, by linking the disappearance of native people with the disappearance of the glaciers, Brown encourages the viewer to confront monumental loss. Furthermore, in documenting these disappearances so clearly and exposing potential relationships between land use policy and native communities, Brown opens up questions about the role of photography in cultural critique.
The Edge of the Frame
At Prairie Du Sac, I scanned the area for Eberhart’s vantage points. After trekking halfway back up Dam Heights Road, I came to the edge of a bluff overlooking the dam. The power station’s transformers and the chain-link fence surrounding them occupied much of the overlook. I set to work trying to recreate his perspectives as best I could, working around the numerous “No Trespassing” signs posted along the fence. After driving back through Prairie Du Sac and crossing the river to its eastern bank, I found another of Eberhart’s locations now converted into a private country club. The manicured fairways were a jarring shift from the natural floodplain foliage documented in the original photos, and illustrated the results of suburbanization I witnessed on much of the surrounding land. Over the course of the morning, I photographed eight different vantage points covering the whole span of the dam’s construction. Despite recapturing the dam from many angles, however, I found that many of the changes I was observing were not documented in my images.
The photographer JoAnn Verburg experienced something similar while undertaking the Rephotographic Survey Project with photographer Mark Klett. Started in 1976, Verburg and Klett used early U.S. Geological Survey and Union Pacific Railroad expedition photos from the western United States as the basis for their project. In her book, Rephotographing Jackson, Verberg describes the rephotography of William Henry Jackson’s 1873 photo White House Mountain, Elk Lake in Colorado: “Ironically, as we set up our equipment for this comparison, which shows such minimal change, there were bright-colored tents, fishermen, and back-packers playing radios and eating junk food behind us.” This closely paralleled my own experience. Holding my camera in position on the western bluff of the Prairie Du Sac dam, I realized that my peripheral field of vision was filled with power lines, transformers, and the corporate headquarters of the Culver’s fast food chain. These experiences were of course not shared by the original photographers, and highlight a significant problem with the assumption that repeat photographs convey the full scope of change in these landscapes.
Klett and Verburg’s piece continued to resonate with my observations about the difficulties of reframing photographs. Upon finding the exact camera location of Jackson’s image, they discovered in the foreground—directly blocking their view—a small shrub. They weighed the accuracy of documenting the landscape as they found it versus recreating the historic photograph as closely as possible, and the shrub was gently pushed out of frame. For me, following suit would have proven much harder. But in moving the plant, the artists question where truth lies. They expose the assumption that photography must be a direct representation of an unaltered reality.
I went to Prairie Du Sac hoping to faithfully recreate Frank Eberhart’s photographs. However, having the space to contemplate my questions regarding truth and assumptions in repeated photographs proved just as important to the act of rephotographing itself. These repeated photos do represent a truth, though it is necessarily a subjective truth—informed by what is included in the frame and what is left out, as well as the cultural assumptions which underlie the images. Photographs are necessarily both visual documents of the past and also subjective cultural objects. It is this duality that continues to fascinate me and that offers such rich potential for repeat photography to inform scientific and artistic ways of knowing.
Featured Image: Left: Wisconsin River upstream of dam, 1911. Photo: Frank Eberhart, Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society. Right: Looking upstream through the chain-link fence, 2016. Photo: Rob Lundberg.
Robert Lundberg is pursuing a J.D. and an M.S. (in Environment & Resources) at UW Madison. Lundberg’s academic interests focus on legal issues of water allocation and usage, and the interaction between “wild” and human-built environments. His artistic practice utilizes photography and solo musical performance to investigate these interests. Additionally, he is an internationally-performing musician. He holds a BFA from The New School in Jazz Performance.
Garry F. Rogers, Harold E. Malde, and R. M. Turner, Bibliography of Repeat Photography for Evaluating Landscape Change, xxvi (Salt Lake City: U of Utah, 1984). ↩
Webb, Robert H., Diane E. Boyer, and R. M. Turner. Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences, 3. Washington, DC: Island, 2010. Print. ↩