One of our major projects in Barcelona was an exploration of rephotography (you can read my brilliant blog post about our first session if you like), but the focus in our work with Arqueologia del Punt de Vista was largely on the historicity and ideas of collective memory and consciousness, as well as the self-reflexivity, of the concept and practice (I’m serious about the self-reflexive stuff — Natasha and Ricard went crazy over pictures of pictures that include the photographer themselves). So most of our work took the form of rephotographing historical (early 20th century) shots of Placa Catalunya, Parc de la Ciutadella, Hospital de Santa Creu, and so forth. While this was interesting, from a theoretical perspective, and from a technical perspective, it was good practice with Photoshop and establishing of vantage points, I felt I was left with a question: what about meaning? I think in its most potent forms, rephotography is an act, a performative process that is as much itself the artwork as is the finished photograph (or, most likely, photo-composite). And the meaning of this repetitive act, in many cases, and certainly in the workshop we just concluded, is tied to place.
“Place” — a pregnant term, the title of a book (by Tim Cresswell) that I have recently finished as part of the reading for my study abroad program, an idea that has a sense and is, according to most (modern) theorists, differentiated from “space”. Place has a subjective meaning, place can be personal, place can be non-, place can be imaginary, place can be virtual. The problem with rephotographing these spaces, I will call them, in Barcelona, is that their historicity is almost completely divorced from our sense of them as places — as transient international students inhabiting the city itself for only a scant month, our sense of place that gives meaning to Placa Catalunya is very much a nowness, of pigeons and Spanish children and the personal ballets we enact through it on our way from school at IES to the La Rambla Carrefore where we could buy a liter of shockingly decent boxed wine for only 55 eurocents.
Maybe the very act (which I have declared as so very important) of rephotographing these historical vantage points on places we have visited in the present is a creation of a more historically-connected sense of place. But to be honest, I know nothing about the author of the image I rephotographed for my personal project, only that it where it was taken and roughly what time of day, from the angle of the light and the projection of the shadows. The only historical connection that the photograph creates for me is a sense of aesthetic or architectural alteration. Admittedly, I could perhaps have sought out more information about the photograph’s production myself, but part of my point is that while it was interesting, it lacks much matter for me in this particular case of being put into practice.
So, when we approach rephotography as an act, it begs personal meaning for the performer — whether that meaning is in the intended production of art or affect on others, or resides firmly in the psychology of the performer-artist. Often, deeply personal acts, when made public (through exhibition, through published accounts, through the perennial ‘based-on-a-true-story’…) can themselves be powerful art pieces (case-in-point: the photography of Nan Goldin). But like photography, rephotography need not always be gratuitously artistic — photography and rephotography can encompass similarly multiplicities of uses and therefore meanings.
Rephotography, says Natasha Christia, is a “returning to the scene of the crime”. So, knowing that I would soon be bidding farewell to Barcelona, I found myself compelled to do exactly this — to engage in personal rephotography. There are two scenes, and two crimes, that I needed to revisit, to deal with photographically, and somehow I felt that I could not leave the city without retracing these steps. One was a space of vicitmization, the other of perpetration. Spaces that were converted into places through occurrences and the memories that I now carry with me, spaces made personal, spaces appropriated now, digitally and visually and indelibly, through the act of taking a photograph. While I did not engage in rephotography in its strictest sense of taking a specific photograph that has already been taken, the theoretical sense was the same, in that I was using photography to recreate perspective, placing myself in exact locations I had been in with the exact vantage points, and re-enacting my own (recently) historical experience of seeing.
The first place I rephotographed was an area of the Gothic Quarter where I had settled on the Sunday before school officially began, in order to read a book on mapping. To make a long story short, I was robbed, and chased the thief through alleyways and cobbled sidestreets until I finally shamed him into returning my entire backpack in front of a square-full of lunching Barcelonans. I was wary of this whole area of the city for several weeks to follow, the memory of my pounding heart and footsteps filling my mind and creating almost single-handedly my ‘sense of place’.
So I returned, four weeks later – I sat in the same spot on the bench where I had been conned into looking away from my bag for two seconds too long, and rephotographed the view of the park that I been before me that afternoon. I walked the streets through which I had dashed in pursuit of my pickpocket, taking a photograph every few feet, recreating my own perspective. I also took some pictures of vantage points I had never had that day, but which were rephotographic in their intent of reinterpreting that place, and how it had changed in meaning, for me — it was strangely cathartic, but I still felt a lingering unease as I walked through that brightly lit park, past ping-pong players and children set in motion on swing sets.
The square where I had finally received my bag was strangely empty. What is interesting about the rephotographs I produced is that the ‘originals’ are in my own mind, and they do not reveal a change so much as the act of returning, the act of pressing the button to release the shutter, reveals the change – in me, in my conception of place, in my conception of my own experience, in my relationship with the city of Barcelona as a greater incarnation of place that inherently includes this tighter-cropped circle of experience.
A photographic walk through the beginning of my pursuit of the pickpocket and my pack:
Returning to the scene of the crime can be dangerous, but I also felt compelled to bring my camera back to the site of my own mild misdemeanor. Barcelona is known for its graffiti (a culture intimately connected with its status as the skateboarding capitol of Europe and the brightness of its modernist architecture and art nouveau designs). Now, thanks to a few friends (who shall of course remain nameless) and I, that body of work of street art is a little richer. We headed out from our residence at 1 am dressed in hoodies and dark jeans and armed with two cans of spray paint, with the intention of ‘making spaces into places’ by quite literally inscribing our mark on them. Ironically, given that we are here as digital photography students, not a single one of us was carrying any device with which to digitally record our exploits.
So I went back with my DSLR, the next afternoon, in order to save my own handiwork for posterity, or something like it. Perhaps as proof that we had done what we had – a sort of preservation for bragging rights. Inherent in all rephotography is a temporal shift — broadly defined, this can be anywhere from a few seconds to centuries. The interesting thing about this case of ‘rephotography’ was the shift in time of day — seeing our graffiti in the light of 16:00 is altogether different from seeing it at the witching hour, freshly painted. Further, despite the passage of less than 24 hours between its execution and my rephotographic pilgrimage, one section of it had already been painted over! I rephotographed this as well, as a testament to its short-lived nature, a reflection on the surprisingly strict sanctions that the Barcelona municipality has established with regard to street art. This sort of conspicuous, or meaningful, absence is itself an entire subcategory of rephotography.
I didn’t take these pictures with an end goal of art (although I always strive for some sort of aesthetic whenever I release the shutter) — perhaps they are art because they have a sort of process-based meaning that has resulted in some sort of aesthetic. I don’t have any intention of exhibiting them, except in order to illustrate this discourse on photographic practice. But even if this is only the loosest form of rephotography, it is a prime example of how meaningful the photographic act can be as just that — an action that carries meaning through its being carried out.