What makes some photographers return to the same places over and over again? Every artist has recurring themes, of course, but for a specific location or scene to imprint itself upon a person’s consciousness, a particular kind of symbiosis must have occurred. The place had to have had an effect on the artist, whether that be visually, emotionally, atmospherically, or something else entirely. What compelled Joel Sternfeld to walk the High Line endlessly in search of pictures? Why did Carrie Mae Weems set up her camera in front of her kitchen table repeatedly across the years? And what made Ed Ruscha methodically photograph every building on the same street?
Photography as a medium has long been associated with the idea of repetition, though perhaps more so for its mechanical aspect—as in, its technically infinite reproducibility—than for any conceptual usage of it. Habit and ritual are huge shaping forces when it comes to artistic process though and many photographers, past and present, have revealed themselves to be creatures of habit, unable to draw themselves away from a particular subject or two, no matter where else their career leads. Looking to the present, the seven contemporary artists this essay centres around all have a place they return to with their cameras, and together they weave a rich web of reasons why.
For Mexico-born, Japan-based photographer Juan Carlos Pinto, that spot takes the form of a small bank of aesthetically pleasing green phone boxes in the basement of Tokyo’s Shinjuku Station—a spot he first came across on a rainy spring afternoon in 2016. “I was on my way to work when I saw the image: it was the first time I saw someone using those phones. I used to pass by that place about three or four times a week, but I had never noticed them before. Suddenly, seeing that person’s wet coat and his hand holding the handset brought the place to life. Without thinking much about the composition I took the photograph and went on my way.” Pinto printed up that photograph as a single image and called it 時代/Jidai – I (which translates to ‘era’). A year or so passed before he thought about it again.
“At first I returned to photograph there because of the appearance of the place,” he recalls. “But over time, the place took on new meanings for me, as each photo I added to the collection seemed to be a chapter of an epistolary conversation in which the social fabric of Tokyo revealed itself.” He started to visit the spot more and more, and some days he would spend up to four hours waiting for someone to use the space.
“Once I find a place where I see aesthetic possibilities I usually explore it for weeks and even months until I manage to take the photograph I am looking for,” he says. With this type of work, the question of when a project like this should finish—if ever—also arises. For Pinto, that time won’t be until the phones disappear. “Perhaps that is the image that will close this series: two empty aluminium pedestals,” he muses. In a way, then, these images of people using the phones form a little time capsule, because most of us now use cell phones and sooner or later public phones may become extinct.
Other photographers are drawn to documenting how a specific place is used in a variety of ways by a variety of people. Two photographers that explore this theme are Tomiyasu Hayahisa, who repeatedly photographed a pingpong table in a public park in his Berlin neighborhood, and Ellen Mitchell, who photographs the benches on the boardwalk of Seaside Heights in New Jersey over and again. Hayahisa’s pictures are always framed the same way—from the vantage point of his apartment window.
“One day, in 2012, I was watching people coming to the table and I thought they were going to play table tennis, but they didn’t. They didn’t play anything—they just sat there and left after a while. From that moment on, I started photographing the people at the table,” he says. And indeed the people in his pictures are seen using the table to lie on, to sit and chat, to skate and so on. Hayahisa has long been interested in a fixed-point-observation style of photographing, he says, which he believes is a way of truly seeing objects and scenes and perceiving their potential.
Mitchell, meanwhile, began her series in 2014, compelled to document this place she’d spent so much time at while growing up. “When I started to shoot at Seaside, I didn’t have an idea of the kind of pictures I wanted to make, but I did know what interested me about the place—the diverse crowds, the architecture, the dichotomy between a very economically depressed populace (it’s consistently one of the poorest towns in the state) and a vibrant beach resort,” she explains.
“I think that, as a local, I can pick out a lot of small details that show what is interesting about the town, but at the same time, I probably miss a lot because I’m so used to seeing it that I’ve become blind to it, in a way.” Some of the impulse behind this act of repetitive photographing is about refreshing her vision anew, then, as well as looking at the characters who use the same spaces as her. “With a uniform format there is a heightened awareness of how the people in each frame differ—in age, gender, race, the endless variety of appearances and behaviours—all of the things that make us fascinating as humans. I think having a similar layout, with the constant of the bench, brings out the beauty and uniqueness of the subjects even more,” she says.
Like Mitchell, San Francisco-based photographer Jake Ricker also became enthralled by a particular public place: this time, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. Starting in 2017, he began going to the bridge almost every day, staying all day and looking for images. “I thought that the candid, street style of photography that I shoot would be an interesting way to show a different version of such a photographed place,” he says. The resulting pictures capture a spectrum of experience, from tourists’ days out to family embraces, car crashes and cops patrolling.
And then there are the moments not seen too—the 60-odd attempted suicides he helped to prevent simply by being there, watching behaviors and lending an ear. In this way, the ritual of heading back to the same place day after day transcended photography, quickly becoming the work he lived his life around. Ricker says he knows there must be an end to the project eventually, so he is planning on wrapping it up when the suicide-detterent nets that are being installed are finished, which feels like a “natural end” for what the project has become.
Where some photographers head out into the world to find their recurring subjects, others look inwards, unearthing something they keep feeling pulled back to from the substance of their daily lives. Back in 2008, the artist Daniel Blaufuks had been spending an extended amount of time at home due to personal reasons, and there was a certain period where he barely went out at all. During that time, he read and studied a lot—books including Cesare Pavese’s diary and the writings of Georges Perec—and slowly, he started to become inspired by both his own reclusion, and the details of his private space.
“It was as if, as other photographers were travelling further and further afar for their images, I, on the contrary, was retreating more and more,” he recalls. And that’s when he found himself considering a certain window in his home—one with frosted glass that obscured the greenery beyond and cast diffused light across the small table in front of it. “I became interested in the window itself and how it changed daily, as well as how it affected my space differently every time I sat at the table,” he says. To borrow a phrase from the writer Xavier de Maistre, then, this was something of a lesson in how far we can “journey around our rooms”—about the places our minds can take us, inspired by the quietest and most seemingly mundane corners of our dwellings.
Over time, alongside his reading and writing, Blaufuks began photographing the window scene, and, in the pictures, the framing itself never changes. Instead, what differs is only ever the items on the table, the light, and whether the window is open or closed. He called the resulting project Attempting Exhaustion—which speaks to his considerations of whether it’s ever possible to exhaustively photograph a place, or in other words to “describe it fully and completely” he says.
Sometimes, it’s a combination of faces as well as places that photographers return to, as with the British photographer Colin Pantall, whose gorgeously emotive publication Sofa Portraits collects images he has taken across the years of his daughter, Isabel, on their worn-out but much-beloved family sofa. Pantall and his wife used to travel a lot for work before having their daughter, but once she arrived they needed more of a permanent base. They moved into a flat in Bath, UK, and the sofa in question came with the property.
“I was working a lot at home and cared for Isabel when my wife was working, so I started photographing closer to home because that is what I was immersed in,” he explains. “It was an accident to begin with. But by doing so, I began to photograph the same things, to see the rhythms, the slight shifts in light, in mood—in expression and in being—that took place over the course of a day, a week, a month, a year. And that overlapped with having our daughter at home, and watching her shift as she grew from a baby into a young child, a girl, and now a woman.”
Pantall says that photographing Isabel on the sofa repeatedly brought with it different emotional elements. “She watched TV when she was tired; when she came home from school, or a trip to the woods or the park, or when she was sick. She liked someone to be there and that someone would sometimes be me. Sometimes I’d watch with her, sometimes I’d do something else, and sometimes I’d photograph. She inhabited that space physically and emotionally… Over the year or two that I photographed, she visibly grew up on that sofa. And when we left it behind, that’s when the project ended.” In this way, each image in Sofa Portraits is like a little act of care and love; revealing how the camera was there for so many domestic moments, both subtle and significant, as well as how important the sofa itself became as a sort of stage for it all to unfold upon.
Another artist who feels the emotional potential of re-photographing a scene is Deanna Dikeman, whose project Leaving and Waving saw her photograph her parents waving goodbye to her outside of their home as she left after a visit. Beginning in 1991 with an impulse to take a snapshot of them from her car, the project organically became a ritual for Dikeman and would continue on for the next 27 years.
“My photos started as a personal remembrance of family moments, but gradually I realized I had a documentary project that could mean more than my private memories. I was in the process of telling a visual story,” she says. “Could I show how I felt about being a daughter who lived 400 miles away from her parents?” The images are moving beyond words; a catalog of her parents’ soft expressions captured in the same way every time, against the backdrop of their suburban house.
When asked if the work is about taxonomies, Dikeman says, “the series certainly can be considered a taxonomy of family farewells. While I was living the moments, I was only photographing my life and using my photography as a way to soothe my sadness. In retrospect, the series has new meaning for me, and yes, it is a way to review life’s shifts and changes,” she says.
“I can see subtle differences that were invisible in day-to-day (or sometimes year-to-year) life. For example, as they stand side by side in 1992, Dad is taller than Mom. By 2007, he’s the same height. In the last year of his life, Dad is regularly using a cane and later you can see Mom’s hand gripping his arm so he doesn’t fall. In his last photo, he’s leaning on their car for support. My son, who was in the car seat in 1997, is driving the car by 2013. The black dog in 1995 has grey fur in 1998. The wrinkles deepen, the faces sag, the waving hands become arthritic, and time marches on.”
Dikeman’s father was the first to pass away and she remembers after his funeral her mum mildly protested the project continuing. “‘But Mom, we’ve got to keep going,’ I said, wanting the project to continue,” recalls Dikeman. And so she kept waving, and her daughter kept photographing. “I now understood that the goodbye pictures were telling a longer-term story, and I knew that one day I would end the series with an empty driveway,” she says.
So what can be unearthed from a chronological, slowly-shifting photographic portrait of a place and the people in it? The artists gathered together here have told us stories that speak to the power of taxonomies and the poetics of sameness, and together, their works—though different in subject matter and intent—go some way to revealing the hidden aspects of human life that can be uncovered by returning to the same subject day after day, and year after year.