Shorpy, a straightforward curated site of historic photos from the Library of Congress, was one of the first. It’s run by Dave Hall, a former copy editor for The Washington Post. The site My Daguerreotype Boyfriend has examined the attractiveness of gentlemen from bygone eras, and Awkward Family Photos has specialized in collecting Olan Mills shots from the 1980s.
Photographer Irina Werning’s “Back to the Future” photo series puts adults in the same poses and outfits of their side-by-side childhood shots. Historypin geotags the location where old photos were taken; when users upload them, a visitor can look at historic images of the real-life scene before them. And Instagram and Hipstamatic, two iPhone camera apps, make any image shot with an iPhone look as if it were taken on a vintage camera instead.
The sites that don’t cull from readers’ personal photos rely heavily on the Library of Congress’s online catalogue, which contains hundreds of thousands of images. Many of these photos are old enough that their copyright has expired, giving artists, historians, filmmakers and anyone else free rein to use them. Beverly Brannan, curator of documentary photography, says the library does not officially keep tabs on the sites that use the photos, but she’s a fan of sites such as Looking Into the Past and My Daguerreotype Boyfriend.
“It seems to me that lots of people don’t have a good sense of history anymore, so to bring these pictures to people’s attention and to discuss them with facts, and put them in context, it’s very educational in a painless way,” Brannan says. “We think it’s a really interesting way to do research, to see quickly how things used to look and how they look now. I think all of us are history buffs, and we really enjoy this way of going back in time, going forward in time and learning more about what we’re seeing.”
Powell didn’t invent the photo-within-a-photo technique: Archaeologists, who call it “Prince’s Principle,” have been using it to document changes in historic sites. Taylor Jones didn’t know that when he took his first photo-within-a-photo in May, after finding a photo of his younger brother at the same kitchen table where Jones was sitting. But in the three months since, his Web site, Dear Photograph, has become a viral sensation. He recently signed a book deal with HarperCollins. His site reflects a nostalgia for film from a generation of photographers that has grown up shooting primarily digital.
“I think because everything’s becoming so digital now, that physical photographs — actual pictures — are so cool to look at,” Jones says. “It’s the fascination that people have with old trends becoming new . . . we wish we could live in that old age when there wasn’t any technology.”