Using Rephotography to Document Changing Landscapes of Southern Ontario

By Virgil Martin

As naturalists, most of us are inclined to downplay the cultural aspects of ‘natural’ landscapes. We know all to well that human activity has altered every corner of Southern Ontario, leaving only a few special places where Nature is still in charge. And so we ‘preserve’ Nature when we can, but tend to ignore the role of both human activity and Nature in shaping ordinary landscapes.

Our life span is too short, and too hurried, to readily grasp the slow, but profound changes that take place in the landscape around us.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an old photograph must be worth an entire book, especially if it happens to be a landscape photograph! An old photograph of an outdoor scene – if carefully replicated in terms of the camera’s point of view, the season, time of day, etc. – should reveal some interesting changes, both cultural and natural. Repeating this process of ‘rephotography’, over and over again, may reveal some broad patterns of change, and perhaps some general observations can be drawn. No doubt, there will be some surprises. Might it be that the photographic evidence will contradict our intuition about how the world is unfolding?

In the mid-1980’s, this author assembled a book of ‘before-and-after’ photo pairs, spanning 150 years, of sites from all across Southern Ontario. More recently I have been revisiting some of the sites depicted in the book, to rephotograph them a second time.

Here’s what to do if you want to try it. Find an old photograph. Find exactly where the camera has been set up. Take a new photo to match the old. Repeat the process in different places. What will you learn about the ways our world has changed?

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