An introductory essay about ‘us’, ‘there’, and ‘then’ — (reading time: 10 mins)
It would be fair to say that I have more interest in the experience of making photographic images than I do in looking at them. Photos, in all their forms, are everywhere, so it is important to talk about how images are added to the ‘pile’ and how we visually engage with the world. Vilém Flusser spoke of a necessity to “make creative sense” of one’s surroundings. For me, that need lends importance to the dialogues had in situ when photographic images are made. However, this is not as easy as it seems: the participation of others — which is intrinsic to photography — and an openness to the possibilities that could emerge from such participation, require graft. They also require time.
All photographs (regardless of how created) are investments of time made with time. Yet so many are viewed through recollection (backwards) rather than repetition (forwards). To repeat the making of a photograph may seem rote to many, but it is instrumental in how we see. Subtle acts of repetition happen all the time: we take a picture, review it, decide on what to change, and we take it again. We may even delete, or at least forget, the earlier iterations. Yet, critically examine someone’s photograph and that investment may re-surface and possibly resist. An abundance of photographic images in the public realm may be a reality, but there remains an open question as to how ordinary people can actually engage with it critically and dispassionately.
In 2006, I started doing ‘rephotography’: the act of occupying and revisiting the vantage of a previously made image. This began with photographs of Japan taken in 1875 during the Challenger expedition, a British survey mission to advance knowledge of the world’s oceans, which I happened across online while living in Osaka. Curiously for an expedition of scientific importance, my research suggested that their photographs did little to fulfil the objective given at the time by the Royal Society to “photograph native races to one scale”; rather, my view now is that they diverged from it. Moreover, the images didn’t convey a discernible ‘voice’ or style of any particular photographer (even though there were three photographers throughout the trip). The images were thus a means of participating in local visual economies wherever the ship visited.
Through revisiting the locations in these photographs periodically, the realization for me was that the Challenger expedition’s images contained muted contributions of others, which in turn asked the same questions of my own use of the medium: I did little to acknowledge those that contributed either directly or indirectly — not because I was cruel, but because I was desensitized. Asking contemporary local residents to join me in rephotographing and responding to the original images changed that: I found a way to collectively question the criteria of what makes a photograph good or — and this is perhaps more relevant to today’s understanding of images — what makes a photograph useful.
Researching and writing about rephotography, I am discovering that rephotographing is more common than first thought and also more inclusive than its 19th century origins in natural sciences would agree. This has led to greater sensitivity towards varied notions of time which in retrospect appears to run through all my photographic activities. For example, in many of the education portraits, students and teachers contribute to a shared experience of time, often by playing against camera apparatus (which extends to me) in order to co-produce a document of us, there and then. Repetition and divergence skewer my personal work too, whether it be a three-year-old’s perceptions of Tokyo as we walk its streets together, seasonal day trips to ‘Tokyo’s waterfall’, or simply when getting in or out of the elevator of the building where I live. Given that contemporary societies in developed economies are frequently observed as ‘time poor’, an awareness of time naturally inhabits my teaching as well.
Unlike other photographers who would show only the best examples of their work, this site brings together shared experiences of time recorded visually by time. While it is a platform to publish my work as fully as possible, I have also tried to keep descriptions to a minimum knowing that I can be contacted if more information is sought. I am not setting out to wow anyone or seek applause – I merely wish to share what is possible when one moment is compared to another without being seduced by nostalgia.
Mark Klett once said that “rephotography is a good way to have a conversation about place over time,” and he wasn’t wrong.
Based in Tokyo, Gary McLeod holds a PhD from London College of Communication (UAL). Having held teaching positions in India and Turkey, he is an Assistant Professor in photography and visual design at the Faculty of Art and Design at Tsukuba University. He also contributes to the online undergraduate and postgraduate top-up programs at Falmouth University in the UK.