Re-Viewing Western U.S. Rephotography in the Anthropocene

In: KronoScope
William R. Handley Associate Professor of English University of Southern California

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In this paper, documentary and artistic pairings of nineteenth-century survey photographs with rephotographs from the 1970s-2000s of identical views of western U.S. sites are read within divergent temporal and historiographical paradigms about historical and geological change. Viewed and interpreted within the legacy of American technocratic “progress” and of debates about the “old” and “new” western histories, this juxtaposed work across a century speaks to shifts in historians’ paradigms about the meaning of western expansion, from optimism to tragedy, and to whether geologic and human history are continuous or discontinuous. The ecological rupture of the Anthropocene returns us to nineteenth-century debates, which in part motivated survey photographs, about whether changes in geological and life forms are gradual or catastrophic—or some uneasy combination of the two. What haunts these photographs today is both a lost ideological past and a precarious, humanly viable future that the Anthropocene exposes.

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