A few weeks ago, I found myself walking through Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown. It was one of those odd Sundays we’ve been having in Washington this fall — a bright, perfect-blue day after a week of gray rain. But I wasn’t looking up at the sky; I was intent on my phone, and the photograph I’d pulled up on it.
The image showed a wintry view of a stepped slope dotted with monuments. In the foreground, three gravestones huddled close to one another and a nearby cross read “James.” The picture had been taken in 1919.
I was in search of that triptych of stones. There was no great meaning to my search, no need to discover my ancestry or the story behind the James family name. Rather, a blog, Shorpy’s, had piqued my curiosity by posting the black-and-white image and asking, “Who can supply us with a current photo from the same vantage point?”
I was hardly the first person to go tramping off trying to find a vestige of the past based on a clue in the very present world online. Archaeological photography has become something of a pastime thanks to sites such as Shorpy’s, Dear Photograph, How to be a Retronaut and Everything is Terrible. The slew of sites offer brief immersions into the past to a history-hungry audience.
Some are building their own online museums, with carefully curated exhibits, such as “Tips for Single Women” from 1938. Others investigate the past, such as Joe Manning at the Lewis Hines Project. He became intrigued with a photograph taken by Lewish Hine of two young girls in a cotton mill in 1909. Manning began to unravel the identites of child laborers culled from clues online. Then, there are those that wrap the past into the present, encouraging others to do so. It’s the impetus behind the Dear Photograph series that asks users to hold up a photograph of their past and photograph the resulting montage, and the reason behind sites such as Young Me/Now Me that capture the changes in a landscape — or in people — over time.
The online obsession with the past contradicts the perception of the Internet as an incessant flood of new information, rushing past viewers. Instead, you could view the Internet as an ever-deepening pool of content, much of it catering to the archivist’s love of the old.
Thanks to the Library of Congress’s effort to digitize America’s past, Edison’s first kinetoscope films from 1894 can be seen on YouTube. It’s not just the ancient that intrigues. The recent past is just as appealing. A 1994 video clip from the “Today Show” went viral in January as folks relished Bryant Gumbel’s stumped expression when he asked a cropped-haired Katie Couric, “What is the Internet?”
In the hundred-year leap, there’s another truism about the Internet: There’s not much in the way of chronological context. Much like the weightlessness of objects in outer space, little anchors the videos, photographs and stories online to any real-world timeline. This offers up tantalizing possibilities for children growing up online. They’re surrounded not just by a global culture, but a largely timeless one, too. What will they piece together with inspiration coming in serendipitously from all ages? And what will be lost?
Further reading: Vintage photography Web sites offer a chance to ‘time travel’