From 1977 to 1980 Mark Klett led a team of photographers in a project that rephotographed landscapes originally captured by 19th-century photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Timothy O'Sullivan. The work of the 19th-century photographers was a major representation of America's push westward: the taking of lands and other notions of "progress."
Rephotographing the surveys (as they were called in the latter part of the 20th century) commemorated historical moments and pointed to both the similarities and differences in the sites. The images in most of the surveys concentrated on place and how those places had been affected by human presence. And, although quite a few of the historical photographs included people, the rephotographed ones concentrated mostly on the place itself rather than on people.
But there are plenty of people in Willie Osterman'srephotographs, currently on view at Casa Italiana on the Nazareth campus. Time Travels: Bologna, Italy & Recent Worksis a selection of images from Osterman'sIn Search of Myth and TimeX series, as well as from his recently published book, Déjà View: Bologna, Italy --- and this last decidedly falls into the category of a rephotographic survey. Unfortunately, given that there are examples from several bodies of work, there are only seven pairs of images from Déjà View on display, which is a small representation of the complete project. (A book is available.)
What is immediately evident in Osterman's work, at least in the pairs represented here, is the emphasis on people. His work does not concentrate on any specific moment or historical event. Some of the original photographs date back to the late 19th century, while other originals are as recent as 1963. This variety of moments takes the viewer away from the illusion of high seriousness that one is expected to experience in other surveys and offers the viewer much more personal and, at times, even touching moments.
A photograph of a little boy, Stefano Veratti, sitting on his toy car is juxtaposed with Osterman's 1998 photograph of the same boy, grown up and sitting on a BMW motorcycle. Osterman writes that what intrigued him about his own, later photograph was the expression of the man, eerily similar to that of the boy. Indeed, there is an uncanny similarity between Stefano's pose as an adult and as a child. Both times his hands are placed on his knees; it's almost identical. We change. But, then again, we don't.
In another pair, we encounter a group of monks strolling through the cloisters of a seminary. The old and new images are strikingly similar. Although Osterman deliberately re-created this scene, it is the social interaction of the monks that makes you think no one has or ever will move --- a modern day sacra conversazione.
Not included in the exhibition (it's in the book) is a photograph of three sisters walking down the street after leaving church sometime in April 1952. Osterman'srephotograph likewise includes three women walking down the street in the same manner as the original. We find out that Osterman actually located the sisters, Giovanna, Nilde, and Anna Driol, who no longer live in Bologna but agreed to re-create the image. Not only do they reprise similar stances (which, of course, is due to Osterman's direction) but their facial expressions look as if they have been frozen in time, reacting to the camera in their individualized yet consistently similar way 50 years later.
Even in images where there are no people present, human presence can be felt. A photograph of Bologna in 1943 shows the city under attack. Osterman reveals that, originally, a priest climbed the steeple of the Church of San Domenico to take pictures. We see a skyline literally clouded by dark, billowing smoke but we also see Romanesque steeples, tenement roofs, even a campanile, proudly popping up and standing tall. Fifty-five years later Osterman captures an almost identical image. While the view is the same, the black smoke has cleared, and revealed in its stead are several tall, modern buildings --- a sign of both survival and tragedy.
The constancy of human presence, whether actual or implied, is what resonates in Osterman's work and makes it much more than a "survey" and much more than just a photographic document. Yes, the places are still there. But so are the people --- either as living bodies or maybe as ghosts that haunt this look at a place and a culture and the interaction of the photographer with the place and its people.
You should go if you want to see the passage of time captured in photographs.
Time Travels: Bologna, Italy & Recent Works by Willie Ostermanthrough March 9 | Casa Italiana at NazarethCollege, 4245 East Avenue | Gallery hours are Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. | 389-2456