Rephotography, Memory and Transformation
Recollecting Landscapes documents over a century of landscape transformation in Flanders. The first step of the project dates from the early twentieth century, when Jean Massart (1865-1925), a professor of botany at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (Free University of Brussels), initiated the photographic documentation of the Belgian landscape through hundreds of images. For his two photographic albums Les aspects de la végétation en Belgique (Aspects of Vegetation in Belgium), he made a selection of images that gave a specific rendering of natural vegetation and agricultural cultivation as related to the geography of the site. The albums visualise the ‘geobotanical’ map of Belgium – based on the classification of botanically homogeneous landscapes – in a series of large-scale, commented photographic plates to be used in teaching. After he had published these two albums on the northern region of Belgium, World War I broke out, putting an end to his endeavour.
In 1980, commissioned by the Nationale Plantentuin van België (National Botanic Garden of Belgium, today Botanic Garden Meise) and the Belgische Natuur- en Vogelreservaten (Belgian Nature and Bird Sanctuaries, today Natuurpunt), photographer Georges Charlier and botanist Leo Vanhecke undertook a first rephotography project and made new images of some sixty of these landscapes in Flanders. Together with Massart’s photos, they were displayed in a travelling exhibition and published in the book Landschappen in Vlaanderen vroeger en nu. Van groene armoede naar grijze overvloed (Landscapes in Flanders Then and Now: from Green Poverty to Grey Abundance). The result provided unique photographic material that led to the comparison of the same sites in around 1900 and in 1980, mainly from a botanical perspective. For this purpose, the photographer tried to stick as closely as possible to Massart’s framing and the time of year when the picture was taken.
In 2003 and 2004, the Vlaams Architectuurinstituut (Flanders Architecture Institute) and Labo S, the Laboratory for Urbanism at Ghent University, commissioned photographer Jan Kempenaers to make a third series of photographs of the same landscapes. In a subtle way, Kempenaers imposed his own vision and framing on the Massart landscapes. It was also decided to continue the series in colour. The project was renamed Recollecting Landscapes and began its own life. In 2014 a fourth series of photographs was made by photographer Michiel De Cleene, who was commissioned by the Province of West Flanders to re-shoot the twenty landscapes located in this province. De Cleene opted for a double rephotography, following both the initial Massart framing and the recent Kempenaers one. For the fourth series presented in this book, a choice between one and the other was made for each landscape in joint consultation with the researchers and photographers. Recollecting Landscapes thus stirs the discussion on documentary photography as both a scientific and an artistic endeavour.
Recollecting Landscapes… offers the possibility of a well-founded understanding of landscape transformations…
The successive photographic campaigns gave birth to a unique ensemble of four series of landscape photographs of the same sites, revealing drastic transformations for some, and a relative standstill or slow evolution for others. The project offers a better understanding of the mechanisms of landscape transformation in Flanders since the early twentieth century. Thorough research of these processes in their economic, cultural and social context, and of the background of planning and regulations, revealed the multifaceted macro and micro realities of each individual site.
As a result, Recollecting Landscapes is an ongoing photography and research project that offers the possibility of a well-founded understanding of landscape transformations caused by such factors as residential expansion, changes in agriculture and nature (scale increase, changing vegetation, recreational demands, environmental engineering, etc.), infrastructural networks (roads, bridges, electricity poles, wind turbines, etc.) and sprawling habitation and economic activity (changing lifestyles, allotment expansion, general car mobility, etc.). The research on the rephotographic series uses various media and archives to build a comprehensive understanding of the evolving landscape. Among other results, this process mainly produces an increasing corpus of knowledge: on different geographic scales as well as on various levels of agency and governance (legislation, administration, planning, policy), and on recurrent narratives about local, concrete actions and interacting global tendencies.
We believe that Recollecting Landscapes substantiates at least two conceptual and methodological shifts in landscape analysis. The first is what we could call the biographical approach of landscape, in line with the concept of ‘landscape biography’ that was used in human geography and cultural landscape studies in the late 1970s. Geographer Marwyn Samuels introduced the term as a way of understanding the landscape from the perspective of authorship, incorporating the role of individuals in the making of landscape. Indeed, since Recollecting Landscapes starts out from the subjective perspective instead of the abstracting, perpendicular viewpoint of the map, it not only displays the effects of large-scale, top-down decisions taken in the offices of designers, experts and politicians, but also those of millions of individual actions taken on a day-to-day basis. The narrative, time-based method of rephotography, in combination with many field trips and interviews in Recollecting Landscapes, introduces an inclusive – one cannot predict what appears in the lens – and forward-thinking perspective on the concept of landscape biography that is now mostly re-introduced in the context of heritage studies.
A second conceptual and methodological shift ties in with the hybridisation of nature-culture concepts. Authors in diverging disciplines such as geography and political ecology have stressed the need to move beyond the dichotomised conception of the natural and the man-made and to promote a rapprochement between environmental and urban history. In the discipline of architecture and urban planning, such concepts as ‘diffuse city’ and ‘nebular city’ were introduced since the 1990s. Nevertheless, designers still seem to grapple with difficulties in tackling the particularities of the urban-rural continuum and of fields of knowledge of other agents working in the landscape, such as ecologists, nature preservationists, farmers and even inhabitants. While the ‘classical’ instrument of the urban planner, the map, sustains a zoning policy and has long been used to solve diverging spatial claims, the photographic image, and especially the rephotographic image series, literally breaks through a sectoral understanding of space, by an uncompromised rendering of the hybridity and messiness of the contemporary urbanised landscape.
Rephotography as Method and Medium
Rephotography has a long history and application range, from responding to the popular demand for nostalgia and the pleasure of comparing images – ‘spot the difference’ – to documenting scientific research. In rephotography projects focusing on (urban) landscapes, different strands can be distinguished.
Some rephotographic surveys may be called ‘endogenous’ since the initiating photographs are intentionally and from the beginning made as part of the project. The series by the Observatoire photographique du paysage (Photographic Landscape Observatory) in France, for instance, are the result of a deliberate policy of rephotography campaigns by artistic photographers observing the transformation of a large number of rural, urbanised and suburban landscapes spread over the French territory. In a similar way, transformations of Finnish rural and urbanised landscapes were monitored.
Rephotography – like documentary photography in general – essentially oscillates between document and discourse.
Another strand in rephotography, in which Recollecting Landscapes can be situated, proceeds from existing, historical series of photographs. In these cases, the artistic, documentary or scientific quality of the original series is of such interest, and the urban or rural landscapes shown on the pictures are so exemplary, that later generations feel addressed to document what has endured and what has disappeared. These projects intend to build further on, and to produce 67 historic documents, by creating photographs that combine Sixty Landscapes artistic quality with documentary content. Probably one of the first and best-known of these projects is the Second View: Rephotographic Survey Project carried out by Mark Klett in the late 1970s. It was continued in the 1990s as the Third Views, Second Sights project. The original views consist of landscapes and scenes from the American West photographed for the United States Geological Survey by nineteenth-century photographers. These historical photographs were paired with contemporary images made of the same landscapes and scenes. Such photographic surveys have since spread worldwide. In Norway, for example, landscapes photographed by nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century photographers such as Axel Theodor Lindahl, Anders Beer Wilse and Knut Aune were very carefully rephotographed at the start of the twenty-first century.
The process of archiving, producing and disclosing historical documents unfolded in close cooperation between Ghent University’s Department of Architecture and Urban Planning and Ghent University Library. Besides two exhibitions (SMAK museum Ghent, 2006 and deSingel arts centre Antwerp, 2015), it resulted in an interactive website showing the complete collection of rephotography series and its analysis. In the course of the different stages of the project, Recollecting Landscapes in fact created an archive in itself, composed of images of four photographers who were each working in a specific context with a specific agenda. According to photographer Allan Sekula, an archive is marked by ‘semantic availability’. In each stage of rephotography and for each medium through which they are presented – the photographic plates of Massart, the books and the website of the Botanic Garden and Labo S – the images are embedded in a new logic and discourse. Images are reframed and meaning is redirected by means of layout, captions, text as well as site and mode of presentation. Therefore, rephotography – like documentary photography in general – essentially oscillates between document and discourse.
This is part of FIELDS, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring fields as natural and (agri)cultural, invisible and visible, poor and productive, created and creators. FIELDS is conceived and edited by Marloe Mens.