Third View (http://thirdview.asu.edu), a site sponsored by Arizona State University's Institute for Studies in the Arts (ISA), is one of the more recent, local artistic efforts to engage the issue. Put online a few weeks ago, it follows the progress of an ASU-related team of photographers in documenting the West. Headed by ASU photographer Mark Klett, the project--partially funded by a grant from the Arizona Commission for the Arts--revisits the photographs of Western sites that began his career 20 years ago.
In the late 1970s, he and a different team of photographers traveled somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 miles in the Rocky Mountain West to record sites that had been shot by notable photographers on the geological and geographical surveys of the 1860s and 1870s. Formally known as the Rephotographic Survey Project (RSP), that project yielded some 122 rephotographs of vantage points taken by W.H. Jackson, Timothy O'Sullivan, John Hillers, A.J. Russell, William Bell and Alexander Gardner.
The point was to record both the changes in the landscape and changes in the idea of documentation. The then-and-now comparisons were a mixed bag. Some showed no profound alterations in the view. Others revealed the expansion of human settlement and land use. In many instances, mines and mining camps had vanished into the dirt. Other views depicted the emergence of suburbs, train lines, highways and dam-induced lakes.
Third View is following much the same route. In the past year, Klett and a crew of current and former ASU photography graduate students Kyle Bajakian, Byron Wolfe and Toshi Ueshina have shot some 60 sites in the West, including about a dozen new ones for future photographers to follow. This time around, the project is distinctly high-tech. In addition to an array of traditional cameras, the project crew is laden with digital media--computers, digital recorders, CD-ROM, video and photographic equipment--geared to lifting remote fieldwork and experience onto the Internet and future CD-ROMs. As a result, the project is as much about documenting the landscape as it is about documenting the documentors.
Klett says some of this stems from the desire to tap into what previously had been the ancillary aspects of the project:
"Twenty years ago we got a lot of additional information in the field that we regret not having been able to use. We had field reports describing the actual context of the pictures, and site slides showing where the camera actually sat in space, so you could see what surrounded the images we were trying to rephotograph. The problem was we just didn't have the means to deal with these things before."
Electronic multimedia have substantially changed that. So, in addition to featuring some rephotographic and original images that dissolve back and forth into one another, Third View online--designed by Richard Stuart--has a heavy dose of the kind of minutiae that has made the Net more tedium than medium. A few clicks on the "field notes" section takes you to a multitude of roadside snapshots and the day-to-day search for campsites, motels, desired vistas. You can read about setting up camp, fixing dinner and shoes and shopping for scotch.
Occasionally, the diary offers an insight, such as the frustrations of the new media: The image degradation that accompanies every step of moving pictures from camera to computer drives the photographers nuts. Compressing images onto the Web bleeds out skies, deepens shadows and deletes details.
But it mostly lumbers on as a dull, raw inventory of events.
Part of this reflects the effort to make sense of a technology that can record and merge more layers of information than ever before.
Yet it also indicates where Klett and his crew are attempting to take visual documentation of the West.
"One of the problems that landscape photography has always faced is that you're always looking through a window, so it's easy to separate yourself from place. And when you separate yourself from place, then you're almost looking at a trophy on the wall."
In rethinking the landscape, Klett seems to be trying to lessen the distance between self and place, using stories to turn the West from an image into a home.
It's hard to predict where this will lead. But what's clear is the effort is part of the ongoing trend in photography to shrink the West to a human scale.
Click, and you're looking at a scene in Green River, Wyoming.
Click, and your view switches to a dead snake on a road near Tonopah, Nevada.
Squeezed onto a computer screen, these are hardly the grandiose spaces and vistas portrayed in the 19th century. And they certainly have none of the beauty of images on photographic paper.
But they may lie closer to the reality of our times.
(Third View can be seen online at http://thirdview.asu.edu. You'll need Shockwave to see it.)
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: [email protected]