This paper examines a selection of photographic practices embodying three distinct ways of conceptualising and visualising notions of ‘return’.  Despite some strong formal similarities, as a consequence of the differing concerns and procedures used to create the photographs, the representations of social space produced by these practices are distinctive. The emphasis in this paper is specifically on photographic depictions of place in relation to return.
The photographs in figures 1-4 are taken from an ongoing project by the author, involving return visits to an urban neighbourhood of South East London.  In 1998 Southwark Council designated this neighbourhood a site of ‘regeneration’ and this term is still applied, even though all demolition and construction work was indefinitely suspended in 2004. [i] In contradistinction to the official understanding of the site as temporarily in stasis, this project seeks to represent some of the many changes that are taking place in this area, and to use this site to examine the constructions and workings of collective forms of memory through photography. The project is structured around four series of photographs; their working titles are ‘corners’, ‘areas of intersection,’ ‘interrupted elements’ and ‘paths through the site’. These series focus on the character of the site and the photographic process itself, over a five-year period. The examination, below, of the uses of return by other photographic practices was originally undertaken in order to contextualise and inform this project.
The first model of return can be characterised as return to a scene via a photograph from a previous epoch. This mode of return largely encompasses a practice which has been called ‘rephotography.’  One of the most famous examples is the North American 1970s Rephotographic Survey Project, subtitled Second View. [ii] This project consisted of physically returning to the sites of government survey photographs commissioned by the United States in the 1870s and 80s – for example Mark Klett’s 1979 re-photograph of Timothy O’ Sullivan’s Rock Formations in Pyramid Lake, Nevada from 1867. Typically, these photographs focus on the alteration of the landscape over the intermediary 100 years, through a comparison of the two photographs. There are many more examples of recent rephotography projects, including photographic series by Jem Southam such as The Pond at Upton Pyne, Peter Sramek’s 2009 work rephotographing Charles Marville’s and Eugène Atget’s pre-Hausmann Paris, and Amy Holmes George’s Double Vision from 2007-2008, based on photographs of Florence.
The mode of return enacted by re-photography is via a photographic response to a historically preceding photograph made by someone other than rephotographer. The image has been ‘found’ if you like, or appropriated from historical imagery or popular culture. The ‘return’ enacted is tightly structured by the earlier image and involves an attempt to formally match it – the position of the camera and the framing of the final image are thus determined by the preceding photograph.
In a visual arts context is a 2005 photographic series by Melanie Manchot that involved her returning to streets in Berlin to ‘rephotograph’ the buildings and residents that now occupy the locations depicted in a series of anonymous found postcards from 1905. In most cases, the nineteenth century buildings were no longer standing and a photograph was constructed in accordance with the schematic of the found image in an attempt to replicate the camera position and match the composition.
 ‘Still Here’ was a series of site-specific works from 2003 by Elise Brewster, Susan Schwartzenberg, Robin Grossinger and the San Francisco Estuary Institute. A billboard was placed at the location matching the viewpoint captured in an 1861 photography by Carleton Watkins, to allow viewers to directly compare the two scenes. This was part of a series of such interventions in the landscape, which included urban sites in the San Francisco Bay area.
The rephotographic projects mentioned above invite the viewer to directly compare two states of a particular place. The coupling of the photographs serves to visually embody notions of what constitutes the ‘past’ and the ‘present’ through the creation of a clear ‘then’ and ‘now’. In the Bay Area project, the emphasis is clearly on how much the ‘natural’ landscape has changed through urbanisation. Running through many of the North American survey rephotographic projects is also a tension between conceptions of nature and the urban, which are often directly contrasted in order to emphasise dramatic change.  Conversely, Manchot’s photographs are structured so as to emphasise continuity through human presence – so that the compositions, framings and camera positions serve to emphasis the similarities between eras and human subjects. Her crop of the image to include the edge of the postcard also serves to highlight the materiality of the found photographic object, as well as the textures of the different photographic processes employed. This creates an emphasis which places further distance between the two images, the ‘then’ and the ‘now’. 
This close juxtaposition of recent and past images similarly composed and framed on a single viewing plane is a strategy that has also been frequently used by advertising and magazine media. A picture article from the Guardian Weekend magazine (figure 5), from April 2010 includes the following inducement, “Want to give an old photograph new life? Simple: take it back to its roots and snap it again…” The images it shows emphasise the textural elements of the photograph – the quality of the older ink dyes and lenses, the fashions of previous epochs. The past is, literally, framed by the present. 
In the projects that fit into this model of rephotography, the authenticity of the found image is in many ways validated by the second image, whose contemporaneity is in turn validated by the earlier image. The historical context of the older image is often lost or overpowered by the striking comparisons rendered through the process of doubling up. Elements such as the texture of the sepia tone serve to emphasise the distance between the present-day scene and the older image. [iii]  The relationship between the two is often presented as belonging to a progressive chronological sequence or narrative.  In some of these projects the older image has become fetishised, where the specificity of the fabrications, stagings and political agendas instrumental to the creation of the original images are lost and the subject becomes naturalised.
The second model involvesreturn to a place, event or idea that resists representation. This model concerns photographs that attempt to represent a past event that could not have been represented at the time of its occurrence – either due to physical constraints or to the enormity of what such photography would be attempting to represent. Mikael Levin’s untitled 1995 photograph of the site of Buchenwald concentration camp emphasises the indeterminate quality of this place and the difficulty of representing the events that occurred there and which it now stands for. In this and similar photographs, by Levin and by Dirk Reinartz, the discrepancy between the knowledge of what has occurred and what is depicted is used to suggest the ‘un-representable’. [iv] As the idea of return suggests, although just a single photograph may be presented to the viewer, it is important that a second image is also invoked. In comparison to the first model of practice already outlined, the imaginative projection necessary here is of a different order – the second image is entirely mental. Whereas the first model allows the viewer to gain access to two epochs presented as photographs side-by-side, this model places one temporality on top of the other, or meshed in with the other, so the viewer is working between the scene depicted in the present and the scene that has not been photographically depicted but is still the subject of the photograph. This process can also be understood as a social, cultural or political return to a site of collective significance.  It relies on a visual displacement of the identity of the site and the knowledge of what has taken place there – what it stands for. What the image further depends on is the audience knowing, or believing, that this is the scene where the event suggested actually happened.
A very different example can be found in the work of Guy Tillim, in particular his photographs of decayed Modernist housing projects in Mozambique, Madagascar, Angola and Benin. Diptych, Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique, 2008 shows the lobby of a decaying Modernist building project. Tillim’s work invokes mental images projected onto the sites he photographs, which make the photographs add up to more than what is literally depicted in them. Whether the heyday of the utopian building complexes that Tillim photographs ever actually existed is not as important for the viewer as the aspirations and alternative ways of living that they serve to present. It is built into the definition of utopia that it is not actualised in the present, [v]  and it therefore cannot be visually represented except by the kinds of suggestions that the arts can make. [vi] The return affected by Tillim’s photographs is the return to a future vision from the past. So there are at least two mental images meshed onto the scene depicted – an image of the epoch from which the buildings emerged and the vision of the future we now imagine that the urban planners then had  – regardless of whether they actually had such a vision. One of the ways that Tillim achieves this effect is through the careful composition of his photographs, recalling the vantage points of architects’ mock-ups. In Diptych, Grande Hotel, for example, it is easy to imagine such a utopian image, with a young family on the balcony waving to friends lounging by the pool in the centre of the photograph, under sun umbrellas on a perfectly mowed lawn next to a tennis court.
Roland Barthes said “what the Photograph reproduces to infinity has occurred only once: the Photograph mechanically repeats what could never be repeated existentially.” [vii]  However, in the case of Tillim, photography paradoxically ‘repeats’ something that may never have occurred, and in the case of Levin, it ‘reproduces’ something that could not have been photographed at the time of its occurrence.
The third and final model to be examined here is of return as structure and process within a practice over time. This understanding of return is in some ways the most literal of the three presented here, relating as it does to the practices of a photographer or group of photographers returning to the same geographical place throughout their professional life. The photographer whose practice exemplifies this approach is Camilo José Vergara. Frequently working over time stretches of 20 or 30 years, Vergara returns to sites he has previously photographed, documenting the sometimes  gradual, sometimes dramatic, changes. His photographs of urban streets depict more than one cycle of boom and bust.
Vergara’s approach is different to that of the first model of return because it is made over the course of his own lifetime, and as he is a living artist, this is potentially also the lifetime of the viewer. The images are presented in series in a manner that also offers them up for cross-analysis.  The kind of comparisons or evaluations that the viewer makes here are different to those in the other two examples. Vergara’s photographs show the cyclical nature of capitalism as shops open and close down repeatedly on the same stretch of street, photographed over years. He has embraced a variety of different media through which he shows his work. As well as monographs and exhibitions, he has created a dedicated website for three of his series, which allow the viewer to use a combination of maps and time dials to examine photographs – choosing the place and the date.
The three models I’ve outlined each produce different spaces for the viewer and suggests different mnemonic properties for photographic images. In the first example, rephotography seeks to recreate the conditions of the older photograph without fundamentally challenging its truth-value – the older photograph acts not to remind the viewer of the past, but to stand in for, or be,the past.  It is a mnemonic in Plato and Barthes’ sense – a substitute to remembrance, perceived as an embodiment of the past.  In the second model, the photographs can act as trigger for reflection or recollection of what previously existed for the viewer as an idea not rooted in personal experience. If this idea did have images attached they would be the iconic images of collective memory. Photography here can potentially challenging the pre-existing frameworks of remembrance, by offering alternative and sometimes difficult images.  The third model uses aspects of the second, but the mnemonic function resides in the internal relations within the body of work of the photographic practice.  Each of the three models results in different space-time positions for their subjects and the viewer. In all cases, but in different ways, the viewer is able to hold, behold or project an understanding or connection to the past and often to an implied present-day. However, the character and the certainty of the viewer’s reading of the past is each case differently suggested by the methodology of the photographer and their means of presenting the resulting photographs. 
This paper presents the author’s research in this area to date and forward motion will require the reflection of these models of return into further practical output. The principle question which will need to be successfully answered concerns how the project contributes to the understanding of how photographs are used to record and to memorialise place.  To this end the site in Southwark will be explored using the methodological approach of developing and reflecting upon image series developed over time.
[i] According to Southwark Council’s website, 40% of the borough is currently (2010) under regeneration. See: [Accessed: 17:14, 27 July, 2010.]
[ii] The project was repeated between 1997 and 2000, this time entitled ‘Third View’. See .
[iii] Although this is deliberately reversed in Amy Holmes George’s work.
[iv] For further discussion of these photographers’ work, see also Ulrich Baer, Spectral Evidence: The Photography of Trauma (MIT Press: Cambridge MA, October 2005).
[v] The etymological origin of the word is from the Greek “οὐ τόπος“ (no place). For discussion regarding the realisability of utopian dreams and the structure of utopian thought, see Ernst Bloch, ‘Something’s missing: a discussion between Ernst Bloch and Theodor W. Adorno on the contradictions of utopian longing’, in The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays,  (MIT Press: Cambridge MA, 1988), pp. 1–17.
[vi] Peter Osborne provides an interesting examination of the dialectical character of utopias – they “have a notoriously contradictory structure: they evoke possibilities by depicting them as actual, yet thereby, in themselves partaking of the actual ­– as depictions – they necessarily foreclose the most radically possibilizing aspects of their own imaginings (the infinity of possibility)...”.  See Peter Osborne, ‘The Dreambird of Experience: Utopia, Possibility, Boredom’, Radical Philosophy, no. 137, 2006, pp. 36–44.
[vii] Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Richard Howard (trans.) (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), p.4.