Time travel is usually considered fictional, but ecologist, author, photographer John Vankat has made traveling through time possible with his recent book “The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time” (Soulstice Publishing, Flagstaff).
John’s book features well over 100 historical images dating from 1867 to 1910 that he precisely rephotographed to show changes through time. The accuracy and insightfulness of John’s repeat photography has been widely praised by the general public as well as ecologists, historians and land managers.
John’s interest in repeat photography extends back to his childhood, when family camping trips to National Forests and National Parks included viewing repeat photographs showing changes in landscapes. John’s youthful mind was surprised that even protected areas had often changed dramatically.
While in graduate school, John researched ecological changes across the 13,000-foot elevational range of Sequoia National Park. The first phase of his research involved obtaining historical photographs from archives and repeating them as precisely as possible. He then collected data related to the changes.
Credits: Photographer (Ben Wittick). Archive (Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe). It was taken in the spring of 1883 from above the south side of Fort Valley and facing the San Francisco Peaks. This photopoint is now located on private property, permission obtained from the owner to post.
John’s interest and use of repeat photography expanded to the classroom when he joined the faculty of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio and taught ecology courses. Students in his classes often were captivated by images showing a century or more of changes.
After retiring from Miami and moving to Flagstaff in 2003, John continued his ecological research via the National Park Service and Northern Arizona University.
In 2015, John began a major repeat photography project by gathering pre-1910 images of sites around Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks from more than 20 archives across the United States. John then repeated the historical photographs by matching each one’s photopoint, season, and time of day. He usually revisited photopoints multiple times to ensure that each historical photograph was repeated as precisely as possible.
John then turned to writing and publishing The San Francisco Peaks Through the Lens of Time. Photographer Tom Alexander, designer Mary Ross, and editor/publisher Julie Hammonds – all based in Flagstaff – facilitated John preparing the book. Reviewers have characterized the book as “splendid”. “positively priceless”, “engrossing”, “meticulously documented”, “engaging”, “historically revealing”, and “the standard for documenting long-term regional landscape changes”. Members of the public have found the book “fascinating”, “like time-traveling”, “truly inspiring”, “stunning”, “eerily precise”, “a trip through time”, and “a labor of love”.
John’s book and presentations enhance understanding the history of changes around Flagstaff and the San Francisco Peaks from the mid-19th century to today. His photograph pairings are readily interpreted and appreciated. Additionally, John leads hikes to the sites of some of the photographs, so that the public can more directly share in his special, uniquely insightful experiences.
Moreover, John’s project is of great value to professional ecologists and land management agencies. With information on past conditions and how they had changed to the present day, John’s book provides insights for ecological restoration as well as protection of the important, beautiful landscapes of the San Francisco Peaks.
Join John on a livestream presentation on Sept. 27, 6:30 p.m. as he shares more than 100 locations around the San Francisco Peaks in his book, “The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time.” Register for the free livestream here!