The book, an update to an earlier edition, pairs old photos of New York City with current photos of the same location. While photos in the previous edition didn’t always match exactly the heights and camera angles of the originals, in this edition, Joseph went through a painstaking process of matching the angle of each old photo. He did so by loading each historical image onto his iPad, he explained to us last week, going to each street photographed, and looking around until he could lock down the location of at least one building in the old photo. “Then I would keep doing it…keep moving around and around until I could get that building into the same location.”
While Joseph had no desire to use 100-year-old photography equipment to replicate the old photos—and is, in fact, known in the photography community for carrying around a lot of modern equipment—he found that he did miss one aspect of “then” photography. “What I quickly figured out was that the elevated subway lines that ran all over New York…were amazing photographic vantage points that no longer exist. So many of them were taken from 25 feet off the ground,” he says. “That is just an amazing place to shoot a building. It gets you above the traffic, it gets you above people, but not so high up that it’s a rooftop view. It renders the target…in a very natural and flattering perspective.” Joseph was left to replicate that perspective as best he could with a monopod, “really like a window-washer’s stick that I attached a photo mount too. Then I rigged up some remote triggers so I could fire the camera from holding a stick 10 feet about my head.” (Joseph also used his connections to developers and real estate brokers to get some of his shots from within other buildings.)
The book also gave Joseph the opportunity to do a little aerial photography, with a helicopter shoot of lower Manhattan. The goal was to replicate a photo that was probably taken from an airplane c. 1935—the result is the then-now pairing above.
Aside from that photo of lower Manhattan, downtown is underrepresented in the book, Joseph says, because most of the century-old photos of New York were taken by commercial architectural photographers, and there wasn’t much call for them to take photos of residential buildings. Instead, the photos of residential areas are snapshots, incorporating streets more than buildings. Still, Joseph thinks there may be material there for a future edition of the book, and we look forward to it.
I’ve always been fascinated by this concept. Once buildings disappear, people tend to forget about them and, of course, new generations have difficulty picturing what was there before. What was once a common streetscape known to thousands (or potentially millions in big cities) simply disappears. Skylines can change quickly as well.
Photography projects like these can also help residents and others get a quick view of urban change. While certain changes get a lot of attention (like the Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago), smaller changes frequently take place and may not be noticed until a whole series of changes occur.
A few years ago, I remember seeing an aerial black and white photograph of Lake Shore Drive crossing the Chicago River. In this photo, Lake Shore Drive still had its famous S-curve (see here) and there weren’t many big buildings in the immediate area. This area has been transformed quite a bit throughout Chicago’s history: it was once a railroad and dock area along the Chicago River that in recent years has become a center for condominiums (like the Aqua building which attracted attention after opening in 2010) and office buildings after Lake Shore Drive being moved closer to the lake. I spent a lot of this with this photo and thinking how much had changed in just several decades.