Old New York & Rephotography

New York City’s Department of Records announced last week that it would be making almost 900 thousand photographs from the Municipal Archives collection available to the public for the first time online. The photographs date back to the late 19th century and span the early 20th century. The response has been so overwhelmingly interested that the site has been down since the launch, something I’m sure they were not anticipating. But how could they not? The Daily Mail featured a few images from the collection, and from this preview it is no wonder the public interest has been so intense.

all from The Daily Mail, courtesy of the NYC Department of Records

That last photograph of the Manhattan Bridge reminds me of a shot I took a few months ago when I was in the city last. I can’t wait until the site goes back up so I can browse the archives; imagine how many more incredible shots there are just waiting to be seen. Don’t you just love the old signage (breakfast special with coffee was only 10¢!) and those men painting the cables on the Brooklyn Bridge is making my knees all wobbly. I love the little barefoot Jewish boy in the first shot, too.

This whole thing go me thinking about my senior capstone course in college. The journalism school was split into 4 different tracks (Broadcast, Magazine, News-Editorial, Photojournalism) and aside from a few general lecture classes, each track had their own course schedule that focused specifically on their given field. The capstone course was different in that instead of working independently in our own tracks and only with people who had the same concentration, we were put in teams with kid from other tracks and assigned a neighborhood in Philly. We were given a semester-long assignment to report from that neighborhood (Fishtown represent!); the content of each weekly report we delivered was up to us to decide, but we were responsible for turning in something that utilized each of the skill-sets of our different team members. Mine was a group of three, one from Broadcast (my friend Chris, who now works as an anchor for CBS in Charlottesville), and one from Magazine. Each week we turned in a written article, a video, and a photo essay.

I just bored you with all those details because one particular project really stuck with me, and I was reminded of it when I saw this old pictures of New York.  For my capstone, I used the Urban Archives available through the university, a huge database of thousands of old pictures of Philadelphia from the past 150 years, to find photographs of our assigned neighborhood from the last century. I then went to each of the locations and photographed what was there now. Rephotography. Simple, yet somehow brilliantly so, and I wish I could take credit for the idea. It was thrilling to me to track down a specific intersection or house or park and line my shot up exactly as it was in the original photo. For the most part, Philadelphia has stayed much the same. But I imagine the same can’t be said for New York. Wouldn’t it be incredible, once the New York Department of Records’ archive site goes live and can handle the influx of curious visitors, to go to those streets and see what’s there now? I bet 40th and 6th Avenue looks a lot different today than it did in May of 1940.

My favorite rephotography project is one by Christopher Rauschenberg, who used photographs by famous French photographer Eugene Atget and traveled around Paris for a year, revisiting and photographing 75 different images. The book, “Paris Changing” is phenomenal, and I love having it on my coffee table. It combines several of my favorite things in one. As far as photobooks go, this one is really something special.

All this to say that two weeks from today, I will be in Paris, taking my own photographs. You guys.

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April 30, 2012 / art / photo / LEAVE A COMMENT / 11

11 comments

  • Erin, what a great post and a wonderful resource in the DoR. I love these old photographs, just look at all the little details. You can come back to them time and time again and see something different in them. Those guys on the wires of the bridge makes my legs go jellylike. A couple of them look smartly dressed, surely they are not all workers ? For my history exam at high school, we had to research the history of our town. That was really interesting (you’ve seen my Tudor house post), visiting the old buildings and peeling back the walls (metaphorically) to find the original features and comparing original photos with our own. History was a favourite subject of mine at school.

    The Paris book looks interesting, will you be adding others to your list when you visit? That’s a great link BTW :-) xx

    • They do look surprisingly well-dressed for hanging out on suspension wires, don’t they? But maybe just that’s how everyone dressed back then. People were so much fancier back then! That sounds like a really neat school assignment, Sam. And more so than the one I had because you can peel back hundreds and hundreds of layers of history from your town. That Tudor house post was wonderful, I hope you share more like it!

      You’d love that Paris book, really. I’m sure I’ll find something else on the trip, or I’m hoping to anyway! xo

  • A. Maze. Ing. Wow! I love that. Over here we have national census every ten years, every household in the country has to fill it in by law. They started releasing the older ones online a couple of years ago and that website went down too. Everyone seeing who lived in their house in 1920 I suppose!

    I love the one with the bridge. Where was health and safety?? The guy at the bottom looks a bit like Sid James.

    That’s such a cool idea for photography. There’s an app here from the Museum of London where you point your iphone at a street or building and it shows you a photo of how it used to look. That’s like, real magic!

    • We have a census every 10 years as well, but I don’t think it’s mandatory by law or anything. I don’t think so, at least, because I can’t imagine people following rules like that over here, haha. I think it would be so cool to see who lived in my house, so long as they weren’t scary convicted killers or anything. Gosh, I’d never sleep again!

      Who’s Sid James? (don’t scold me!)

      I LOVE the Museum of London, they have the best gift shop (yes, I did just say that). And that whole exhibit they have of the great fire is just so incredible. I love that entire museum. In fact, the last time I went my cousin made me take a picture of him in front of the entrance to prove he went in to a museum. True story! That app sounds incredibly cool, is that what I’m missing out on without an iPhone?

  • The photo of the men on the wire is amazing! I know, I use that word way too much, but it really is amazing. It’s giving me all kinds of vertigo.
    Your college project sounds so interesting and intense. I agree, how fascinating it would be to see on old photo of a street corner (or house, stores, buildings…) from the 40′s and then visit that same spot today. I love the beauty and nostalgia of that idea and this post.
    PS~Just popped over to 365. My apologies, I haven’t been over in a couple of weeks. Your photos are so beautiful, Erin. You really could use your own photos for Like a Picture. I really loved the photos of the cocktails in the moody, dark bar and the photo of that one street at night with all the twinkling lights in the trees. Is that your street? (Seeing your medicine made my heart ache a bit.)
    Here’s to another great week! (Moving ever more closely to your trip!)

    • I love that element of nostalgia, too. I’m a sucker for old-timey stuff as it is (if my diatribe on letter-writing on your blog a few days ago wasn’t enough of an indication, ha!) but I especially love old photographs. That’s a big weakness for me at flea markets, going through stacks of old photographs, creating romantic stories for the people in them, imagining a time when we didn’t have the internet…you know, the usual ;)

      And no need to apologize for not visiting 365 frequently! It shouldn’t ever feel like a chore, and I’m more just doing it to prove I can keep up with something for a whole year, not for you guys to constantly fawn over it. You’re very kind with all those compliments, miss. You do know how to make a girl feel special :)

      Yes! Only 12 days to go!! Eep!

  • Wooh. I love this stuff!

    If you ever fancy a lovely little read, there is a great blog here called Spitalfields Life. It’s all about the East End of London and it’s inhabitants and there are loads of these rephotography photos…this one I really like:

    http://spitalfieldslife.com/2009/12/21/how-raymonds-shop-became-leilas-shop/

    They even lined up the schoolkids at the right, and I love the woman’s bustle-y dress on the left.

    (And with that, there goes another 4 hours of my life looking at old photos on the interwebz.)

    Hurrah!

    • Oh, wow! Thanks, Süsk! That’s an awesome blog from the looks of it. I love that they recreated the image almost exactly, with the exception of the clothing, obviously. I love that there’s an entire blog devoted to rephotography. I’m sure there are plenty more I don’t know about, too!

      Haha, happy to help waste your time! That’s what the internet is for, right? ;)

  • Erin what a fantastic post!!! The pictures are incredible and I so get it that the site went down. I’m obsessing now and please let us know when it goes back up so I can browse…

    Annie, how do you know about the MoL app? That’s cool.

    You know, I never knew that the national census was compulsory. In fact, I never filled it out until they send me tons of reminders and I went there for a Market Research and found out you can go to prison for not filling it out! opppss, went home and sorted it immediately:)

    I love the Spitalfieldslife site and often read it. Erin, don’t freak now but Leila’s is my regular haunt… She is lovely and it’s all about ‘slow living’. When you come I’ll take you!

    2 weeks #countdown.

    That books looks special.

  • Love love love old photographs! I’ve worked on a lot of historic restorations at my office and we always had to request old photographs from the city. It’s so interesting how buildings and the shape of the city changes over the years.

    The previous owners of our house left us a photocopy of an old photo of our house and since then I want to find out more about our area. How it looked way back when. Maybe I should do some rephotography of my area then too…

  • We are kindred spirits – I have regular moments where I find myself wishing I lived at a time when ladies didn’t leave the house without a hat, gloves and matching bag & people wrote long letters with gorgeous handwriting on beautiful stationary. I love pouring over old photos..the new york times archive is one of my favorites as is the national archives. I can’t wait to delve into this once the site is back up! The bridge photo is my favorite too and I’m going to check out that wonderful book on Amazon stat! You always find the best of the best – It’s so fun to visit and see what else you’ve discovered! Xo Jen P.S. – your college project sounds like so much fun! I spent my undergrad and grad school in a classroom for the most part..probably why I wish I had go to art or journalism school instead :)