Repeat Photography vs. Rephotography

Gobbledygook?  Splitting hairs?  Who cares?  There is no consensus on the definition of these terms and in fact in the literature, they are often conflated and somewhat understandably so since the two are closely related in technique and overall purpose, and any distinction between the two one might choose to make could certainly be argued for or against.  It would probably make a good topic for a debating society.

In the book Repeat Photography (Webb 2010), Chapter 1, Webb, Turner and Boyd write “Repeat photography is an excellent technique for evaluating landscape change over time, as amply demonstrated by the holdings of the Desert Laboratory Repeat Photography Collection and those of numerous other researchers. First used in the late 1800s by glaciologists as a simple method to monitor glaciers, repeat photography experienced an upswing swing in use, largely by American scientists and mostly after World War II. In recent years, repeat photography has become well established globally as a technique to address a vast array of research questions, such as fire effects and recovery, land-use effects, changes in archaeological features, the location of historic routes and trails, and assessing perceptionsof change. It is also commonly used to do regionwide assessments of landscape change, typically with respect to general or specific land-use practices and climatic fluctuations. While photographic technology has evolved and become more accessible, the fundamental techniques of repeat photography have remained unchanged since its inception in the late nineteenth century. The increasing number, variety, and locations of repeat photography projects are directly attributable to the creative minds and needs for documenting landscape changes of those who practice this technique.”

Robert H. Webb. Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences (Kindle Locations 283-290). Kindle Edition

In Chapter 19, Photography and Rephotography in the Cairngorms, Scotland, UK, Robert Moore states, “Comparison between vintage images and contemporary rephotographs provides powerful evidence of change to landscape and lifestyle. The process of rephotographing a location also offers an opportunity to collect additional information and knowledge edge about the area depicted (Klett, chapter 4).”

“The study is ongoing and seeks to record documented  change using rephotography.  Its purpose is largely educational and interpretive, with the rephotographic technique being used as a tool to reveal change, foster a connection and understanding of the landscape, make links with human involvement in the processes of change, and inform-perhaps guide-future management practices. By definition, rephotographers are drawn to locations and make photographic compositions determined up to around 150 years previously. Usually, the initial images were taken by another photographer, but in some notable long-term studies (Webb et al., chapter 1; McClaran et al., chapter 12) a single photographer or group of photographers may have returned to a location many times, over many years.”

“During the twentieth century, a number of individual photographers made significant landscape studies in the Cairngorms, among them Seton Gordon don (Gordon 1912, 1921, 1925), Robert Adam, Walter Poucher (Poucher 1947), and John Markham (in Fraser Darling 1947, Pearsall 1950). Of these, Robert Moyes Adam (1885-1967) is perhaps the most significant exponent; he is remembered for his prolific Scottish landscape work and his documentation of rural life, much of which changed dramatically or even disappeared completely within his lifetime (Rohde, chapter 18). In a 1958 interview, he revealed something of his motivation: “Suppose I catalogued (Scotland’s) wildlife and its topography as a permanent record against industrial and other changes of the future. Suppose I were to preserve for my own botanical interest, the land as I see it in my lifetime” (Bruce-Watt 1958 quoted in Smart 1996). Adam’s collection of negatives-some 15,000-were made from the late 1890s to the 1950s. They form a major documentary resource that has been featured in many book publications and magazines and is now archived in the University of St. Andrews Library.”

“By faithfully replicating a view, it is possible to begin gin to make sense of the landscape change, particularly in terms of human intervention and influence. Rephotography allows the two dimensions of the original image to be interrogated and compared on like terms with a contemporary counterpart.”


Robert H. Webb. Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences (Kindle Locations 4886-4893; 4906-4912; 4919-4921). Kindle Edition.

One can see even here among the leading experts in the field of repeat photography and rephotography, there conflation and confusion in the use of the terms.  Is it important to make a distinction?  Again a point which could be argued, but for the purposes of my project, I believe the answer is yes.  

As noted above, rephotography usually begins with a historical photograph taken by someone else.  The technique requires research to locate the original vantage point and composition, and determine the time of year and day in order to replicate as closely as possible the original image.  So a rephotography project begins with a certain number of unknowns which must be resolved in order to capture a contemporaneous image that replicates faithfully enough the original image so that they can be meaningfully compared.

While some repeat photography projects begin with an old photograph taken by someone else, it is more common that an individual or team identify locations with perspectives chosen for their scientific relevance to the subject being studied and those sites are revisited and photographed on some periodic basis.  The subtle distinction being there is not the element of the unknown in repeat photography.  Both are meant to provide a basis for meaningful evaluation of changes to subject area, and the techniques for imaging are largely the same, but the starting point is different.

So in keeping with this interpretation, and for the purposes of my project, the Repeat Photography elements will be those for which I choose locations and make the original  and subsequent images that will be used for analysis of physical and ephemeral changes to the landscape of Coul Links.  If I am able to find any historical photographs of the landscape or cultural features on Coul Links, they will used as the basis for the Rephotography elements of my project.


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