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Flagstaff author illustrates a century of ecological change in ‘Through the Lens of Time’

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Through the Lens of Time

Author and photographer John Vankat stands with his book, "The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time," Wednesday afternoon in front of the San Francisco Peaks. The book utilizes comparative photography to look at how landscapes throughout Arizona have changed over the last 150 years.

Have you ever looked over a city and wondered what the land was like before humans moved in? You’re not alone in that curiosity.

In the recently released book, “The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time,” John L. Vankat satisfies the question for those of us in northern Arizona.

Expertly compiled by Soulstice Publishing, the book features repeat photography by Vankat that shows how Flagstaff and its surrounding landscape have changed over the last century and a half. By coupling historic photos with eerily precise repeats, “Through the Lens of Time” delivers an opportunity to see past and present side by side. More than a balm for simple curiosity, the work reveals a history invisible to the current-day Flagstaffian and offers insights for the construction of our future.

Vankat is a scientist first — a plant ecologist to be precise. “Through the Lens of Time" is not his first book. Vankat is also responsible for a textbook that examines how plant life has changed over time in the mountains and plateaus of the American Southwest. U.S. Geological Survey research ecologist Craig D. Allen called it “a beautiful work of careful scholarship,” but for Vankat, it wasn’t beautiful enough.

“It’s about as boring as you can get, all scientific,” Vankat said of his past work.

His major complaint? Not enough pictures.

From Old Main

John Vankat poses atop the the Old Main building at Northern Arizona University, where he captured a repeat photograph for the new book "The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time."

“I wanted to include some comparison photographs,” he said. “I thought I’d probably find dozens of them. I was startled how few there were. Here and New Mexico, there were just a few of them that were showing the nature," he said.

He published the book still wanting for comparison photos. Years later, Vankat retired from his rigid scientific career but found himself looking to continue his research in a more relaxed way. He found inspiration from his past desires.

“Why not repeat photography?” he recalled asking himself. “I love to hike. I love being outdoors. And, so, what better way than trying to find 150 different sites around the San Francisco Peaks?”

What followed was seven years of an adventurous and meticulous process whereby Vankat retrieved historical photos from museum and university collections then set out to explore the landscape, camera in hand, until he found their exact vantage.

Exact is not an exaggeration.

Cover Comparison

This overlap of a historical and repeat photograph demonstrates the precision that abounds in the comparative photography collection "The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time" by John L. Vankat

“I was in no hurry,” Vankat said.

He often returned to locations until he was satisfied that he had snapped a perfectly framed repeat photograph. For one recreation of an 1871 photo that shows the San Francisco Peaks from Hart Prairie, this meant returning to a site a dozen times over many weeks in search of a particular pile of rocks.

“The last time I went back looking around, it was in the mid- to late-fall,” Vankat said. “And there was a shrub that had lost its leaves.”

In a moment of eureka, Vankat realized that what he had mistaken for rocks in the historical photograph were actually small shrubs denuded by winter. Shrubs — unlike rocks — can move a lot over 150 years, and with this realization Vankat was released from recreating the landmark. He found the frame, and captured the photo with satisfaction.

There were other surprises throughout the project, Vankat said. Some were discoveries of landscape — such as when he happened to locate an unrecognized cinder cone thanks to a casual glance out the window while driving east of Flagstaff. Or when he found that, despite the shade of substantial new tree growth, on June 3 the morning sun still hits a particular stone near the Museum of Northern Arizona the same way it did in 1887.

Others were discoveries of community — such as when the Flagstaff Fire Department agreed to lift Vankat on the ladder of firetruck so that he could recreate an 1884 shot of downtown Flagstaff taken from atop a since removed water tower. Or the way the people of Flagstaff graciously allowed him behind their fences when he requested access in pursuit of particular shots.

“I was only turned down once,” Vankat said.

When asked why he believed he had such a high rate of success in this regard, Vankat said he thought Flagstaff is place where people are friendly and “share the care” for the landscape.

“It’s remarkable,” he added.

In collection, the repeat photographs of “Through the Lens of Time” reveal patterns in the way the northern Arizona landscape has changed. The overall expansion and modernization of Flagstaff is expected. But it is rather surprising to see the open ponderosa grassland before it was engulfed, and realize that the full-grown trees presently squeezed in the urban density are nearly all recent additions.

“We’ve lost an aspect of what used to be present in Flagstaff,” he said. “Ponderosa pines are not completely gone downtown, in the suburbs and other regions, but so many of them have been replaced by non-native species.”

As a plant ecologist, non-native plants are a mortal peeve to Vankat. He has seen and studied first hand the havoc they can wreak on an ecosystem. And for the most part, his photos show the degree to which non-native plants dominate the present day streets of Flagstaff.

It’s not just the city where trees have gotten more dense. Many photos clearly show how even in the surrounding forests — where native plants still reign supreme — ingrowth of ponderosa pines and other tress have filled in the scenes. At times, this ingrowth is so severe that the repeat photos would be unrecognizable if not for some faint clue. One pair from Norther Hart Prairie clearly shows a mountain vista across a grassland in 1885. In its repeat, the peak on the horizon is faintly visible between the trunks, branches and needles of newly grown trees.

This new density of trees is in large part a consequence of historic wildfire suppression, Vankat said.

According to the Forest History Society, it was in the late 1800s — the same era as many of the historic photographs in “Through the Lens of Time” — that conservationists began arguing for the suppression of natural wildfire. The idea was to protect lumber supply and watersheds, and when the U.S. Forest Service was established in 1905, fire suppression became standard practice.

But by disrupting the natural fire regime, these historical practices ushered in unnatural forest density. More trees means more fuel for fire, and dense forest is partly why northern Arizona now experiences more destructive and extreme fires today. All of Arizona’s 10 largest wildfires have taken place in the last 20 years. Mere months before “Through the Lens of Time” was published, Flagstaff endured the Tunnel and Pipeline fires, two of its most destructive wildfires to date.

Finding the shot

John Vankat adjust a tripod with the San Francisco Peaks in the background. His recently released collection of repeat photography is based on historical photos from across the greater Flagstaff region. 

Vankat hopes that by illustrating the radical departure northern Arizona forests have made from historical conditions, it will help readers understand present-day forest management tactics, such as thinning and prescribed burns, that attempt to restore the area to a healthier, more fire-resistant state.

To that end, “Through the Lens of Time” is a success, said Peter Fulé, regent’s professor in the Northern Arizona University School of Forestry. He said the book is helpful as an “educational tool.”

“For those of us working in forest issues around here, it lets us helps us understand some of the changes in the forest” Fulé said. “Changes associated with keeping fires out of the forest, with logging practices in the past, and some of the types of development and growth of communities that puts us in a somewhat dangerous fire setting of wildland-urban interface.”

Not only does Vankat’s repeat photography offer insight into what change has wrought so far, but, Fulé believes, it will also be an invaluable resources to future researchers and historians.

“Time is continuing onward,” Fulé said. “We are moving through a century characterized by really rapid warming; there are certainly going to be many other changes to this landscape. And so by him [Vankat] pausing here around 2022 and taking these photographs, that is also setting the stage for someone else to do it again in 50 or 100 years.”

While finding the exact locations photographed in “Through the Lens of Time” took Vankat seven years to complete, if someone were to repeat his process in the future it would be much easier. A true scientist, Vankat took excellent notes. For every location he recorded GPS coordinates, took context photos and even left small piles of stones to mark the place where he stood. He intends to compile and publicly preserve these detailed notes.

“I’ve made an agreement with the special collections archives at NAU,” said Vankat. “I haven't deposited anything there, but I've signed a commitment.”

As much effort as Vankat put into “Through the Lens of Time,” he said that there were many ways in which the final product was a team effort. Professional photographer Tom Alexander helped angle and crop the repeat photos to match the historical. The book was designed by Mary Ross Design in Flagstaff, and Julie Hammonds of Soulstice Publishing contributed her editing talents to the final presentation.

“But most of the credit,” Vankat said, “goes to the people that took the historical photographs and the archives that preserved them.”

Vankat will publicly present “Through the Lens of Time” at Soulstice Publishing event Thursday at the Flagstaff Public Library between 6:30 and 8 p.m. Copies will be available for sale, and Vankat will be available to sign books and answer questions about the project.

Sean Golightly can be reached at

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Sean Golightly reports on the environment and the city of Flagstaff. Reach him at, on Twitter at @sean_golightly, or on Instagram at @golightly_writes.

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