Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences

Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences

by Robert H. Webb

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First developed in the 1880s as a way to monitor glaciers in Europe, repeat photography —the practice of taking photographs at different points in times from the same physical vantage point—remains an essential and cost-effective technique for scientists and researchers working to track and study landscape change.

This volume explores


First developed in the 1880s as a way to monitor glaciers in Europe, repeat photography —the practice of taking photographs at different points in times from the same physical vantage point—remains an essential and cost-effective technique for scientists and researchers working to track and study landscape change.

This volume explores the technical and geographic scope of this important technique, focusing particularly on the intertwined influences of climatic variation and land-use practices in sculpting landscapes. Contributors offer a broad-perspective review of the state-of-the-art of repeat photography, withtwenty-three chapters written by researchers around the globe who have made use of repeat photography in their work. Topics addressed include
• the history of repeat photography • techniques for creating and analyzing repeat photographs • applications in the geosciences • applications in population ecology • applications in ecosystem change • cultural applications

Repeat Photography demonstrates the wide range of potential applications, examines new techniques for acquiring data from repeat photography, and clearly shows that repeat photography remains a valuable and efficient means of monitoring change in both developed and developing regions. Overone hundredsets of photographs, includingthirty-twopages of color photos, serve as examples.

Recent concerns about climate change and its effects on natural landscapes, combined with ongoing concerns about land-use practices, make this state-of-the-art review a timely contribution to the literature.

Editorial Reviews

coordinator, Special Collections and Archives, Northern Arizona University - Karen J. Underhill
"As an archivist, I applaud the myriad ways these talented scientists from around the world have incorporated repeat photogrpahy into their research. Historic photographs teach us much about environmental and cultural change and the continutiy—from subtle shifts to cataclysmic events. Thousands of images await discovery by like-minded, innovative scholars. Kudos to Webb, Boyer, and Turner for leading the charge."
Rangeland scientist, Agricultural Research Service, Jornada Experimental Range - Kris Havstad
"Repeat photography, which can be a rigorous, scientific technique requiring precision and patience, has made a significant contribution to the study of landscape dynamics over the past century. This book is a wonderful and uniquely important contribution to the proper use of this technique for contemporary ecological studies."
University of Victoria, director of the Mountain Legacy Project - Eric Higgs
"Repeat photography proves that pictures are indeed worth a thousand words. What Webb, Boyer, and Turner teach us is that pictures also open up fresh paths of interpretation and understanding. New digital technologies and discoveries of historical photographic collections usher in an exciting era for appreciating cultural, ecological, and geophysical change. Spanning continents, disciplines, and techniques, Repeat Photography will become a standard reference."
Ecological Society of America - Brian H. Luckman
"This book is excellent, with much to offer both the specialist and the more general reader. It comprehensively explores the techniques and applications of repeat photography and will prove the benchmark in the field."
Restoration Ecology
"Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences will remain a standard reference."
Ecological Restoration
"Repeat Photography: Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences has all the ingredients to make it a definitive treatise about visually measuring landscape change."
Ecological Management & Restoration
"I was struck by the ingenuity and creativity of many of the analyses, both qualitative and quantitative..."
author of On the Road Again: Montana's Changing Landscape - William Wyckoff
"These remarkable essagys bring together a treasure chest of accumulated wisdom from more than three dozen scholars who have explored the world of repeat photography. From the rural Scottish Highlands to the desert landscapes of Arizona, these innovative case studies showcase the use of repeat photography in the sciences and provide general observations on the techniques and applications of this fascinating, rapidly evolving field."

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Repeat Photography

Methods and Applications in the Natural Sciences

By Robert H. Webb, Diane E. Boyer, Raymond M. Turner


Copyright © 2010 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61091-006-4


Introduction: A Brief History of Repeat Photography

Robert H. Webb, Raymond M. Turner, and Diane E. Boyer

Repeat photography is a valuable tool for evaluating long-term ecological and/or geological change in landscapes. Its practitioners conduct repeat photography projects by acquiring historical and current images, matching those images, and then cataloging and archiving the imagery for long-term storage. The roots of repeat photography lie in the Alps of central Europe, but its uses have spread worldwide, as illustrated throughout this book. Originally developed as a means for documenting changes in glaciers, repeat photography now is used to document all manner of landscape change and ecosystem processes.

Most repeat photography projects have been ad hoc efforts to meet specific needs, such as documenting ecological change in a national park (Meagher and Houston 1998) or a larger ecoregion (Turner et al. 2003). Few efforts have attempted to collate images for collective current or future research use (Bierman et al. 2005). The Desert Laboratory Repeat Photography Collection, named for the Desert Laboratory research facility in Tucson, Arizona, is the largest such collection in the world (Webb et al. 2007a), with over 4,900 camera stations located throughout the southwestern United States, northern Mexico (fig. 1.1), and Kenya. We present a general history of repeat photography as well as a more detailed one of the Desert Laboratory Collection to illustrate the development of this technique and some future trends in its application.

History of Repeat Photography

In its infancy, photography had a documentary purpose, whether it was to record news events, capture the brutality of war, or preserve images of famous people. Scientific photographic documentation in the western United States began with surveys used to determine appropriate routes for the ;transcontinental railways (Bell 1869), to illustrate geological features of landscapes (Powell 1895), or to show the condition of lands prior to development (e.g., George Roskruge; see Turner et al. 2003). The imagery of many of these initial photographic surveys was preserved in archives, making it available to future generations for the study of landscape change.

The Initial Science Applications

A Bavarian mathematician with a geological interest took the first steps in the development of repeat photography as a scientific tool. In 1888, Sebastian Finsterwalder began conducting ;photogrammetric surveys of mountain glaciers in the Tyrolean Alps. He returned to his established camera stations the following year, obtaining repeated images of the same view. By comparing the old and new images, and using rudimentary photogrammetry, Finsterwalder documented change to the glaciers over time (HatterslySmith 1966). In doing so, he pioneered the technique of repeat photography involving deliberate and careful matching of older photographs with newer photographs from the same camera station (Rogers et al. 1984). Following Finsterwalder, early glaciologists in the Canadian Rockies (Cavell 1983), the Sierra Nevada in California (Gilbert 1904), and Alaska (Molnia, chapter 6) used repeat photography as well, establishing the groundwork for a technique that has grown in importance in glaciology (Molnia, chapter 6; Fagre and McKeon, chapter 7).

In addition to its use in glaciology studies, repeat photography soon was used to document plant populations and landscape change. As early as 1905, ecological texts recommended using matched photographs on research quadrats as an aid to plant population measurements (Clements 1905). One of the earliest studies documented decline in rangeland species between 1903 and 1913 on the Santa Rita Experimental Range south of Tucson (Wooten 1916; see McClaran et al., chapter 12). Forrest Shreve, a pioneering desert ecologist, used repeat photography to document changes in vegetation plots at the Desert Laboratory in Tucson between 1906 and 1928 (Shreve 1929). Before the 1940s, only a few studies used repeat photography to document ecological changes in the southwestern United States (Rogers et al. 1984); most of these were narrowly focused and published in scientific journals or monographs.

In the 1940s, repeat photography became a technique frequently used to document landscape change, particularly changes induced by land use. For example, in 1946, repeat photography was used to demonstrate an increase in Prosopis velutina (velvet mesquite) and other woody species in Arizona grasslands (Parker and Martin 1952), a subject that continues to be of interest in the southwestern United States (McClaran et al., chapter 12; Turner et al., chapter 17). The tendency of grasslands to change into woody savannas remains a topic of research worldwide (e.g., Lewis, chapter 15).

Repeat photography also gained adherents in the geological discipline, particularly those interested in weathering and bedrock erosion. In southeastern Utah, Bryan and La Rue (1927) compared images of the Navajo Twins near Bluff for signs of weathering over about a two-decade interval. Longwell et al. (1932) illustrated a discussion of waterfall erosion using a matched pair of photographs taken of Niagara Falls, on the Niagara River on the US–Canadian border, before and after a large mass of rock at the edge of the falls fell off on 17 January 1931. Lobeck (1939) included an approximately matched pair (1886 and 1926) showing toppling of blocks from a basalt column in the Palisades of the Hudson River near Fort Lee, New Jersey.

Expeditions in the southwestern United States prior to the development of reliable photography typically included an artist to record the landscape, and expedition members often described the countryside in their journals. Lockett (1939) pioneered the combined analysis of photographic and historical records to describe anecdotally landscape change in northwestern New Mexico and northern Arizona. In 1948, Simpson (1951) used a camera to match sketches of New Mexican landscapes made in the 1870s during a ;paleontological expedition. Relocating and ;rephotographing the scenes depicted in sketches and paintings originally made by expeditionary artists are useful in determining historic routes and camps that are not known precisely (Jonas, chapter 21).

Botanist Homer Shantz of the University of Arizona in Tucson was the first person to use repeat photography to document large-scale geographic changes in plant populations. In 1956–1957, Shantz, assisted by B. L. Turner, repeated images he had taken on 1919– 1920 and 1924 excursions in Africa from Cape Town to Cairo (Shantz and Turner 1958). This publication, the first book-length report of landscape change relying entirely on repeat photography, was highly influential in the fledgling field, opening up new possibilities for its application.

Shantz and Turner's work was constrained by both linear geography (roadways and railroads) and time (the dates of Shantz's original images). Many of the projects they inspired were similarly defined. In 1968–1969, Stephens and Shoemaker (1987) replicated photographs taken by John K. Hillers and E. O. Beaman during the John Wesley Powell expeditions along the Colorado and Green rivers in the American Southwest. In the early 1970s, Turner and Karpiscak (1980) also worked along the Colorado River but matched photographs from a broad variety of dates and photographers. In 1984, Robert R. Humphrey (1987) matched photographs taken in 1892–1893 along the border between Mexico and the United States. The International Boundary Commission erected 258 monuments along the boundary between El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, California. One or more photographs were taken of each of these monuments. Humphrey was closely restricted geographically and temporally as he moved along this boundary line matching one photograph at each monument. The first major repeat photography project operating in a broad geographic region using historic imagery unrestricted by photographer or date was that conducted by Hastings and Turner (1965), which ultimately gave rise to the Desert Laboratory Repeat Photography Collection.

The Desert Laboratory Repeat Photography Collection

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Carnegie Institution of Washington endowed a number of biological research stations designed to study typical ecosystems of the United States. Among the regions chosen was the Sonoran Desert, and in 1903, construction began on the Desert Laboratory on a basaltic hill west of downtown Tucson (Bowers 1990). Carnegie assigned the scientists at the Desert Laboratory the task of understanding adaptations of plants and animals to the desert environment and cataloging the species that occupied those regions, but particularly the Sonoran Desert. Carnegie's role in this research is commemorated in the monospecific genus occupied by the iconic species of the Sonoran Desert, Carnegiea gigantea (saguaro).

Pioneering desert ecologists flocked to the Desert Laboratory, including the highly influential Forrest Shreve (Bowers 1988) and Daniel T. MacDougal, both of whom photographed the desert environment (plate 1.1). The Desert Laboratory remained under the auspices of the Carnegie Institution until 1940, when it was transferred to the US Forest Service as headquarters for the Southwestern Forest and Range Experiment Station (Medina 1996). Forest Service scientists used repeat photography to document changes in rangeland conditions in various parts of southern Arizona (e.g., Parker and Martin 1952), but they did not formally establish a collection of repeat photographs. In the mid-1950s, the facility was transferred to the University of Arizona, where it served as the Laboratory of Geochronology for nearly four decades.

In the late 1950s, Jim McDonald, an atmospheric physicist from the University of Arizona, wanted to analyze vegetation change documented in repeat photographs as a proxy for climatological data. McDonald recruited; bioclimatologist James Rodney Hastings to conduct fieldwork, creating and analyzing repeat photography of the Sonoran Desert. Hastings's project gained the attention of Raymond M. Turner, a botanist and professor at the University of Arizona. Beginning in 1959, Turner and Hastings collaborated to systematically replicate historical photographs of the region, culminating in the classic book The Changing Mile (Hastings and Turner 1965), which documents vegetation change from the 1880s to the 1960s in the vertical mile of elevation that encompasses the Sonoran Desert. This book was recently updated as The Changing Mile Revisited (Turner et al. 2003).

In 1962, Turner left the University of Arizona to join the US Geological Survey, also in Tucson. Fourteen years later, Turner moved to the US Geological Survey's satellite office at the Desert Laboratory, and with his arrival, his burgeoning photographic collection assumed its current name. The collection expanded as applications for repeat photography increased. In the early 1980s, Robert H. Webb, also with the US Geological Survey, engaged Turner to study ecosystem recovery at abandoned ghost towns in the Mojave Desert (Webb et al. 1987). In 1989, Turner retired from the US Geological Survey, and Webb assumed official guardianship of the collection. In collaboration with Turner, Webb applied the repeat photography technique to a wide variety of research questions ranging from long-term channel change of regional rivers, such as change along the Colorado River in Grand Canyon (Webb 1996, Webb et al. 1999), to documentation of changes in permanent vegetation plots in the Mojave Desert (Webb et al. 2003) and long-term change in riparian vegetation (Webb et al. 2007b). Turner continued to use repeat photography in documenting the combined effects of climate variability and land-use practices, including an expansion of Shantz's work in Kenya (Turner et al. 1998).

As of 2010, the Desert Laboratory Collection contains approximately 35,000 negatives and transparencies taken at 4,970 camera stations (fig. 1.1). A total of 6,790 original photographs were used at these camera stations to create 9,762 matches (many images have been matched multiple times). The largest number of matches (1,586) was made in the Grand Canyon, the site of ongoing studies related to the effects of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River (Turner and Karpiscak 1980, Webb 1996). The three photographers with the most original imagery incorporated into the collection are Robert Brewster Stanton (428) and Eugene C. La Rue (396), who were prominent photographers of the Colorado River, and Janice C. Beatley (402), who photographed permanent vegetation plots in southern Nevada. Most of the matches are in Arizona (4,111), followed by Utah (1,213), and Nevada (505) (table 1.1). A total of 150 camera stations have been occupied in Kenya, and 67 of these are the reoccupied Shantz and Turner (1958) camera stations. While the collection is no longer physically housed at the Desert Laboratory, the name has been kept in honor of the significance of this historic research facility.

Recent Work in Repeat Photography: Selected Studies

In the last few decades, hundreds of publications employing repeat photography have appeared in scientific and popular literature. Few photographers or groups have conducted sustained repeat photography spanning decades; those who have include Gruell (foreword), Klett (chapter 4), Veblen (chapter 13), Hall (2002), and the authors. There are a few large-scale, systematic repeat photography projects, such as the one conducted by the US National Park Service through its Inventory and Monitoring Program (e.g., in southwest Alaska, science.nature Researchers employed by the US Forest Service have conducted repeat photography projects for many years (Hall 2002). The Rocky Mountain Repeat Photography Project in Canada ( aims to repeat topographic survey photographs taken in the early 1900s. Numerous, somewhat smaller programs are found worldwide, such as those in Vermont (Bierman, chapter 9), Mexico (Bullock and Turner, chapter 10), Kenya (Western, chapter 16), South Africa (Hoffman et al., chapter 11), and Namibia (Rohde 1997).


Excerpted from Repeat Photography by Robert H. Webb, Diane E. Boyer, Raymond M. Turner. Copyright © 2010 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Dr. Robert H. Webb is a hydrologist and Diane E. Boyer is a photo archivist with the U.S. Geological Survey National Research Program in Tucson, Arizona.

Dr. Raymond M. Turner is a botanist, now retired from the USGS in Tucson. In 1959, Turner established the Desert Laboratory Repeat Photography Collection, now managed by Webb and Boyer.

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