Over the last century and a half, Flagstaff has experienced an immense amount of change in its landscape and towns. By way of building of railroad tracks, neighborhoods, businesses and schools like NAU, Flagstaff has a different look now compared to that of the 1800s. 

On Nov. 3, John Vankat — writer, photographer, educator and ecologist — presented over 150 years of Flagstaff’s history through archival drawings and photographs at the Flagstaff City-Coconino County Public Library

Vankat earned a bachelor’s degree in biology at Carleton College and his master’s and doctorate in botany at the University of California, Davis. He taught plant ecology at Miami University for over 30 years before moving to Flagstaff as a special projects ecologist with Grand Canyon National Park.

He has published works in Landscape Ecology, Journal of Vegetation Science and Ecological Modelling, which include text and photographs. 

With the use of a historical image, its repeat in black and white photography and the same repeat in color, audience members saw Flagstaff as it began as a grassland and turned into a city. Both repeat photos, in black and white and in color, were taken by Vankat over the past seven years.

Many of the archival drawings and photographs were available in Arizona at various locations like libraries and universities. Others were found at institutions and libraries in Colorado, California and New Mexico. 

A majority of the photographs presented, which will be included in his book, were taken in various locations from downtown Flagstaff to Humphreys Peak. 

Vankat’s book, “The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time,” will be released nationally by Soulstice Publishing. It is available for presale before it hits shelves at Barnes & Noble locations and select independent bookstores. 

By matching historical archives with current photographs, his book displays the past and present of Flagstaff through repeat photography. 

The process of repeat photography consists of taking multiple photographs of the same subject or location but at different periods. The goal of this process is to note the differences and similarities both photographs hold despite having been taken at separate times. 

With this technique, Vankat was able to illustrate ecological changes seen throughout various parts of Flagstaff by comparing archival photographs and drawings from the 1800s to photographs he had taken in the past seven years. 

“Good repeat photography is challenging,” Vankat said. “There are three goals, which are getting the precise location, taking the photograph in the same season of the year and the same time of day.”

With help from Tom Alexander, a professional photographer in Flagstaff, Vankat repeated 135 photographs for his book. But even with an extra set of hands, Vankat said it was extremely difficult to perfect all three of these aspects in his photographs. 

“Some of the archival drawings and photographs of Flagstaff in the 1800s didn’t provide the season or month when it was taken,” Vankat said. “A majority of them only provided the year so we had to work with just that information.”

Vankat said he has spent hours trying to find the precise location of photographs to recreate them. Some of these locations were found to be on private property and Vankat had to seek permission prior to photographing. 

He said he found it easier to take photocopies of archival drawings and photographs and show private landowners what he aimed to replicate in his photographs. 

“These people didn’t know me,” Vankat said. “I just went to their door and knocked on it. I was only turned down once or twice, but it was stunning for people to allow me to go on their property.”

One of the photographs included in Vankat’s book required him to get on top of Old Main to capture the landscape as accurately as possible. With the university’s permission and an official to safely strap him in a harness, Vankat got his shot. 

Other photographs required Vankat to get assistance from the Flagstaff Fire Department to gain the proper elevation for his repeat photography. 

Many members of the Flagstaff community were in awe of the archives Vankat presented. With over 35 Flagstaff residents seated in the community room of the downtown library, they were eager to see archivals of the city in the past.

Deborah Cordova, an audience member, said she was intrigued to see the history of the city she calls home. Cordova said she tries to attend various events held downtown in her free time. 

“Throughout my years here, I’ve seen new businesses and restaurants be built and seen so many people come and go,” Cordova said. “I thought it was extremely eye-opening to see how this city looked before we were all here, before it became such a lively place. It shocked me to see what was and what it is now.” 

Mary Ross, graphic designer for “The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time,” said she was appreciative of the high regard Vankat had of the environment. 

Based in Flagstaff, Mary Ross is an artist and designer who is committed to forming creative partnerships with those she works with. Despite this being her first project with Vankat, Ross said she was appreciative of his dedication.   

“His care for the peak, the region, the history and ecology is something that should be acknowledged and spoken of,” Ross said. “It was a pleasure to work with him.” 

Despite working with Ross and Julie Hammonds — a representative of Soulstice Publishing — Vankat believes a majority of the credit should go toward people of the past. 

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

On Nov. 10, Vankat’s book, “The San Francisco Peaks and Flagstaff Through the Lens of Time,” will be released nationally. It will be available across shelves at Barnes & Noble and select independent bookstores. 

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