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Vintage photo time travellers

In times of widespread love for everything low-fi in photography, some artists go looking for history in vintage.

art and culture Updated: Jan 24, 2012 19:41 IST

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. Powell printed it, took it to the Capitol and stood there amid tourist commotion, trying to figure out exactly where those California beauties posed.

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. His work has gone viral on Reddit, Digg and other social media sites.

"I'm the type of person who would walk down the street and wonder what it was like 100 years ago," Powell says. "This is how I do it."

Powell, of suburban Reston, Va., began his photographic time travel unintentionally, in February 2009. 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, Va., 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. Some of the trees in his photos are the same ones from decades ago, only taller and stronger. 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. Anyone who owns an iPhone can fancy himself a photographer, but the images captured often lack the charm and visual interest that antique photos have. 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 specialized in collecting Olan Mills shots from the 1980s.

Photographer Irina Werning's 'Back to the Future' photo series puts adults in the same poses and outfits of their side-by-side childhood shots. Instagram and Hipstamatic, two iPhone camera apps, make any image shot with an iPhone look as if it were taken on a vintage camera instead.

The sites that don't cull from readers' personal photos rely heavily on the Library of Congress's online catalogue, which contains hundreds of thousands of images. Many are old enough that their copyright has expired, allowing anyone to use them. Beverly Brannan, curator of documentary photography, says the library does not officially keep tabs on the sites that use the photos. "It seems that lots of people don't have a good sense of history anymore, so to bring these pictures to people's attention and to discuss them with facts, and put them in context, it's very educational in a painless way," Brannan says.

In the three months since Taylor Jones took his first photo-within-a-photo, his website, Dear Photograph, has become a viral sensation. He was recently signed on by HarperCollins. His site reflects a nostalgia for film from a generation of photographers that has grown up shooting primarily digital.

"It's the fascination that people have with old trends becoming new. We wish we could live in that old age when there wasn't any technology," Jones says.

"It's ironic, but it's using digital electronics to give people a window into the past, so it works out," he says.

Jones's and Powell's sites are also collaborative, encouraging others to submit photos to the site or to Flickr.

Ivan Sciupac, 36, a Washington iPhoneographer who blogs at Here's Looking at Euclid, has attempted a few Looking Into the Past/Dear Photograph shots of the city from photos of a childhood vacation in Washington. Sciupac shoots street portraits of his neighbors on a digital camera but does much of his work with an iPhone. Although he occasionally shoots film, he says taking photos on his phone is easier.

"I don't think it will be a passing fad," Sciupac says. "It's a lot more work to take film shots, and it's a lot easier to re-create that. Camera apps like Instagram and Hipstamatic do a good job, and you also have high-quality shots."

Powell has played around with Hipstamatic and Instagram, but he eschews fake vintage-effect photography for authentic antique photos.

"I have to do a 'spray and pray,' where I'm going through an entire collection," says Powell — clicking through thousands of photos to find just a few shots. Sometimes, he finds great photos that he can't shoot because of security around government buildings. "Half the photos I've taken of actual streets in DC are taken in the road, so I have to bring my fiancee to keep me safe from traffic," he says.

Powell, who recently left a job as a network engineer, is working on a 'Looking Into the Past' book but hasn't found a publisher. He says he considers himself to be equal parts historian and artist and is beginning a series of photos of Civil War battlefields and will travel to the precise sites where photographers stood for the historic photos.

"This is a documentation of me being here," he says.

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First Published: Aug 20, 2011 22:50 IST