I’ve never gotten to go in a time machine but until they invent one repeat photography is about as close as I’ll get.
The process starts slowly: mining the internet, talking to museum archivists, getting hundreds of old photographs with vague descriptions of locations from scientists, leafing through beautiful old books that are worth more than my camera, and ending up with thousands of historic photographs, sketches, and maps on my computer.
Days are spent pouring over maps and working in Google Earth to try to align mountains, glaciers, and ridges, figuring out the most likely area the photo was taken from and how to get there. From this point it’s time to go to the nearest town, print out the black and white images on paper, load up my backpack with tent, stove, food, and camera gear and go into the mountains. Some photos can be gotten on an afternoon run, others require multiple days of hiking to get to.
Then the psychology starts. To find the precise location of a photograph I find that I need to get into the mind of the photographer I am repeating. Through repeating many photos I start to learn where different photographers liked standing and what subjects interested them. Alberto de Agostini, a mountaineer at heart, liked shooting from high ridges with grand views. G.K. Gilbert, a photographer for the U.S. Geological Survey, really liked unique rocks and landscapes. When I look with this knowledge I can almost intuitively know where they might have stood.
Finally it clicks. Walking along a ridge, seeing two boulders and thinking “Yep. That is exactly where de Agostini stood.” Seeing a rock outcrop and thinking, “If I were G.K. Gilbert, that is where I would have taken this photo from.” And it all comes together. Get the print out of my pocket, hold it up, and I have a window into the past.
Sometimes the changes are obvious, sometimes subtle, but standing in the same location and being able to see how it looked 50, 80, 100, years ago is an incredible experience. The next best thing to a time machine: a time window.
Don’t take my word for it, go try it!