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.
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.