Photographing History and a Desire to See the Past in the Present

This photograph of Parliament Hill and its Centre Pavilion in the 1950s is juxtaposed against the present-day landscape. Courtesy: Dear Photograph.

This photograph of Parliament Hill and its Centre Pavilion in the 1950s is juxtaposed against the present-day landscape. Courtesy: Dear Photograph.

By Kaitlin Wainwright

At December’s public consultations on the new Museum of Canadian History, Sean Kheraj, an assistant professor of history at York University, made a comment that stuck with me: by commemorating moments in history we actually learn as much about our present as our past. In trying to see the past through a contemporary lens, we blur history with nostalgia. Situating the past in a present context gives new meaning to both, and a greater understanding of not only how the built and social environments once were, but also what they’ve become.

The American literary icon Susan Sontag noted that “Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions and disarming historical judgments by the generalized pathos of looking at time past.”[i] Over the past year and a half, several online projects that juxtapose or integrate archival images with contemporary ones have taken root. The act of creating and viewing these photographs is inherently tied to the making and remaking of place. The act of associating an archival photograph with memory or with its present-day counterpart changes how we see place. Our memory, working with the photograph, creates a link between the past and the present.  Dear Photograph is one such online project that seeks to bridge the gap between past and present, and in doing so, remakes our emotional geography.

The brainchild of Taylor Jones, Dear Photograph began in 2011 as a way to collect and post old photographs to Tumblr with captions that expressed a desire to reconnect with the past. The website has been described as “new age nostalgia,” has spawned a book collection and was the inspiration for a series of Chevrolet ads. The website’s mantra, “take a picture of a picture from the past in the present,” strongly reminded me of my own experiences in the archives or at a dining room table looking through family photo albums. But they also reminded me of the practice of Old Home Weeks and Old Boys’ Reunions that took place in large swaths of Ontario in the early 20th century. Both focussed on the performance of memory and the process of gazing from the present into a nostalgic past.  As John Walsh and James Opp discussed in the introduction to their collection, Placing Memory and Remembering Place in Canada (2010), memory is mobile: it is the acts of inhabiting, returning to, or moving through a space that create or confirm memories of place.

Dear Photograph succeeds because, for both photographer and viewer, it is a return to a place where a memory (or memories) was created. Rather than seeing these archived photographs as static, one begins to think of them as performative, telling a story about both the past and the present. By locating historical photographs in their contemporary setting, the photographer is remaking the meaning of that place.

The original photograph defines the place in which it is set, but by placing it in its contemporary setting, the photographer is remaking the meaning of that place.

The most successful of the Dear Photograph images are the ones in which the narrative is defined by a geography of departure from the place – either through physical distance or through time. I found myself particularly drawn to the  image above (http://dearphotograph.com/image/39345122764), taken by Cecile of her mother posing in front of Parliament Hill in the 1950s. Through the image, I was able to take a cognitive journey back in time and through space to where I had acquired my own memories with the Summer Pavilion.

Most of the images featured in the Dear Photograph collection are from ‘everyday life’ – birthday parties, holidays, first days of school. However, two other projects use a similar process to invoke memories about more complex moments in our collective past. Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse’s collection, Ghosts of History, integrates archival images from the last days of the Second World War with their contemporary streetscapes. While Teeuwisse’s goal is to engage the viewer in the idea that history is all around them, the subject matter creates a secondary narrative of the recovery that has taken place over the years since the war.

Utrecht, May 7, 1945 juxtaposed against modern Utrecht. Courtesy: Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse.

Utrecht, May 7, 1945 juxtaposed against modern Utrecht. Courtesy: Jo Hedwig Teeuwisse.

For example, this image of Utrecht in May 1945 depicts shots fired at civilians and British troops as they celebrated the liberation of the city two days earlier. Set against the modern backdrop of a commercial street with a Chanel billboard, it is a complex image that attempts to remake the modern-day notion of place in Utrecht.  Here, the act of remaking of place has the consequence of not only leading us to consider how the contemporary environment once was, but also how a place of war has subsequently rebuilt itself.

Shawn Clover’s collection, Fade to 1906, takes the same approach, superimposing contemporary photographs onto archival images of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Images of burned-out buildings, destroyed bridges, and the tent cities that formed in the quake’s aftermath are integrated into the landscape of modern San Fransisco. In one image, a woman opens her car door on Sacramento Street while horses killed by fallen rubble lie in the roadway. In both of these images, it is not the same nostalgia of Dear Photograph that the viewer experiences, but rather the sense that the past has been forgotten, in part because the community has recovered from it.

Each of these projects relies on the strong emotional resonance of photographs – either because of personal or collective memory. Relying on the practice of nostalgia, they effectively teach us more about ourselves, one another, and our past, but also our present.

Kaitlin Wainwright is a graduate of Carleton University’s Public History program.  She’s currently the Plaques and Markers Program Coordinator at Heritage Toronto.

[i] Susan Sontag, On Photography (London: Penguin Books, 1977), 77.

5 thoughts on “Photographing History and a Desire to See the Past in the Present

  1. I’m glad to see Dear Photograph is catching on — it’s a great concept. When you see articles like “The ‘Walking Dead’ gets ‘Dear Photograph’ treatment” you know it has become a new subgenre of photography! For those more inclined to Environmental History, there are some great examples of Dear Photograph-inspired history at
    http://niche-canada.org/node/10460

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