American photographer Jason Powell went to the Capitol recently to photograph not the politicians, the architecture or the tourists. He went to photograph a photograph.
The scene taking a second turn in front of the lens was one worth revisiting 70 years later: a bevy of beautiful California girls dressed to represent the state’s fruit crops. They smiled from the Capitol steps in a photo discovered in the recesses of the Library of Congress online photo archive. The caption identified them as a “cornucopia” participating in a 1939 publicity event with Sen. Sheridan Downey to spur the construction of a highway from San Diego. Powell printed it, took it to the Capitol and stood there amid tourist commotion, trying to figure out exactly where those California beauties posed.
Powell’s photo in a photo is also a moment within a moment. It’s his way of briefly connecting what was captured in the milliseconds of a camera’s aperture opening decades ago with the place it happened in the present day. For his Web photo series ‘Looking Into the Past,’ Powell takes his photographs of photographs with a wide-angle lens so that when he holds up a photo from years ago, his camera takes in the present-day setting as well. When he’s able to perfectly align the image with the contemporary scene, it’s either a neat parlour trick, a portal through time or both.
“I’m the type of person who would walk down the street and wonder what it was like 100 years ago,” Powell says.
Powell, of suburban Reston, Virginia, began his photographic time travel unintentionally, in February 2009. He had planned to do a typical then-and-now diptych with Library of Congress images of suburban Leesburg, Virginia, in Loudoun County, but when he held the image in front of his camera to check his perspective, he had the idea to just keep the photo there. Since then, Powell has juxtaposed 1920s automobiles at the Loudoun County Courthouse with present-day sedans zipping by.
He has posed horse-drawn buggies precariously close to crossing the double yellow line of a Warrenton, Virginia, road, and he has placed a photo of suffragettes at the White House, appearing to block the path of present-day tourists. The most interesting thing about his photos isn’t seeing what has changed — it’s seeing what has stayed the same. Statues in traffic circles, unaltered, are a reminder of the permanence of monuments in a rapidly changing urban landscape. In the era of the present-day blahbuilding, there’s also contemporary blahphotography. Although more photos are being taken than ever before, many are uninspired. That’s why vintage photography — or simulated digital imitations — is getting a second look in projects such as Powell’s.
Shorpy, a straightforward curated site of historic photos from the Library of Congress, was one of the first. The site My Daguerreotype Boyfriend has examined the attractiveness of gentlemen from bygone eras, and Awkward Family Photos has specialised in collecting Olan Mills shots from the 1980s.
Take your own photo-within-a-photo
1 Choose a photo with a setting you can anchor to the present day: a childhood home, a monument, an old building that still stands.
2 Look for a photo with lines that extend beyond the image: Jason Powell frequently counts steps, windows and columns to help him determine where a photo was taken.
3 Go to the site where the photo was taken, hold the photo at an arm’s length and line up the image with what you see in the present day. You’ll probably have to walk around and experiment to find the right spot.
4 Use a wide-angle lens or setting on your camera to take in the entire then-and-now shot.
5 Click! Take a few shots so you can choose the best one.