New book captures Washington’s history, beauty through ‘repeat photography’

Historian, filmmaker and Seattle Times columnist Paul Dorpat and Seattle teacher, writer and photographer Jean Sherrard share their new coffee-table book of photographs showing how our state has changed over the years.

Question: What is “repeat photography”?

Dorpat: “Repeat photography” is the most general term for what it describes — the act of returning to a prospect used by a previous photographer and using her or his photograph as something to copy or repeat. The first of the “then and now” instance of repeating a photo was in Paris, when photography was first made “public” and when the French Academy gave the inventor Louis Daguerre a pension and lots of honor for sharing his technique with the world, in 1839. Within a year, Daguerreotypes were being made around the world.

Sherrard: In the Northwest, the arrival of settlers in large numbers coincided with the use of photography as a way of recording our lives. With such a brief history under our belts, photographs become even more significant; they allow us to uniquely examine where we’ve been, where we are, and where we’re going.

Q: What’s with Westcliffe Publishers’ series of “Then & Now” books?

Dorpat: Westcliffe started with Colorado, the home of the publisher who was also a photographer/naturalist who did the repeat photos for that first book. It did so well that he went forward and published several other Western states and found photographer/writers to do them. I was called to do Washington because they were familiar with my “repeat” work in Seattle and also, perhaps, with my and Genny McCoy’s big book, “Building Washington: (A History of Washington State Public Works),” published in 1999.

Q: What was the process involved in producing this book?

Dorpat: Jean did 90-plus percent of the “now” photos and about half the writing. I did the organizing, contacting, and searching for historical photos. Often Jean would be traveling alone while I was at home at my desk calling persons I had already contacted about the project who lived in the places that he was about to visit. If we needed their help in finding the exact or best position for a repeat I’d let them know that Jean was minutes away.

The relative quick and cheap communications now with mobile phones and phone cards made it possible to work this way to great and efficient effect. While he was out on the road alone, I was his stay-in-touch travel guide. I also went with him on a few trips — to Spokane, the Columbia River, Bellingham and southwest Washington.

Most importantly, Jean is 20 years younger than I and much braver in a physical sense. I have social courage but lack it in physical pursuits like driving all around the state in a rush.

Q: What will be involved in your presentation in Bellingham?

Dorpat: We will show about 50 repeats — statewide. We will probably put in most of the Northwest corner material, too. We are both long-time presenters and we like the banter between us and the audience.We also encourage the audience to interrupt and sometimes award prizes to persons who can name the places we show before we do. It will be fun — because so far it always has been fun.

We will be showing some of the comparisons that are in the book but will also include some that are not.

Q: How could this book “change the world,” and what’s all that about?

Sherrard: That’s Paul’s little joke, but it’s really not too far off the mark. Whatever choices we make about our future must be informed by an understanding, however incomplete and imperfect, of how just far we’ve come and what we’ve left behind. Do we wreak havoc or visit beauty on our landscape? Is there some deep connection between us and the places we inhabit? Does it matter where and how we live? “Washington Then & Now” might provide a signpost, or a yardstick.

Q: What’s next?

Dorpat: The “Washington State Repeat Photography Project” is a long name for our intentions to do more with this engaging old convention. (Certainly a DVD.) Somewhat grandly, we hope to initiate a state-wide citizen project that will invite persons to repeat historical photographs of their communities, farms, trail heads and such. We will start by sharing some of the historical photos I’ve collected in the past nearly 20 years of working on state subjects, most notably with “Building Washington” and now with “Washington Then & Now.”We expect that persons will also come forward with their own old photos. We intend to make this a growing online archive that all participants can share, interpret and enjoy. We will make this invitation on our Web page and also get news of it to heritage-inclined citizens with digital cameras and/or scanners through community newspapers, heritage websites, newsletters, whatever.

We are not in any alarming rush to do this but will for now softly trumpet the idea looking for impressions and criticisms.