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Then and Now Photography

Then and now or comparative photography has serious applications as well as allowing interesting comparisons to be obtained, the military, social and law enforcement side covering planning control and speed cameras us covered in comparative photography and speed cameras, this is photography being used to detect change, and in many cases uses two photos a before and after.

In this article we are looking at the interest side, perhaps looking at what developments or changes have occurred.

We might have a photo we have taken from a time gone by, or perhaps know of a change to occur so be starting with the before photo, and will later get an after one. Alternatively we could be sourcing a much older 'then' photo and going to match it with a 'now'.

Around 20 years ago I did a series of 'then and now' photos for a magazine, so can now look at some of these as an 'early then', a '20 years ago then' that if we were to go and see how it looks again now, will see how it all has changed. I have produced a selection of these in Somerset Then and Now Locations

Radstock Then & Now, nr Bath, Somerset

One of the very first photography assignments I had was to take a series of photographs and publish some of them as  postcards, these were done in about 1963, and if I go today and look at these locations again, 47 years later, there will be, in some cases, a lot of changes, in others hardly any. Photography has also changed a vast amount in this time, as the publisher of the postcards had equipment that could only handle certain formats, so to take these postcards I had to hire a plate camera, and use cut sheet film in adaptors. Using this large professional bellows camera was a real experience, and the cost of the film was, to me, such that every sheet had to be a perfect photo. With no exposure meter available to me, and focusing being done with an upside down image on a ground glass screen under a black cloth, this was very similar to the photographers of many years before, except they would have been using black and white and I was using colour transparency material.

There are many sources of old photos, as we show in Where to Get Old Prints From, as well as some not so old, so you can do the same. In some places everything has been flattened and rebuilt, however in most places a lot of the buildings remain, although they will have been altered, reused etc. In most cases there will have been a lot of infill, adding more buildings into the gaps. You will probably be surprised at just how many of these places you are able to identify.

Chilcompton - The Street Then & Now, Chilcompton, Somerset

Chilcompton 2010 - notice the development that has now taken place on the left

If we go back further in time, then, we can go back before photographs, we have drawings and paintings as our 'then' images. Artists may have used some licence and moved items a little or selected a particular tree they liked the look of and put it into their photos. Similarly the position that the images was viewed from may have not existed or more often did, but changes like larger amounts of woodland, have obscured the view. In the article John Constable Painting Locations, supported by the John Constables Painting Locations Then and Now list, we look at the work of one artist in particular, and where to find the locations today.

The Hay Wain Then & Now, Flatford, Suffolk  
by John Constable

In the article How to Find Locations, we look at the techniques you can use to identify the location of the photographs, and in Where to Get Old Prints From we look at where you can get old photos from.

Matching Photographs

You will find a few problems in matching photographs, one I have already mentioned visibility, extra foliage or infill building blocking the view. Another may be that the location exists but is not available to you, in the case of one of the Constable paintings, the position he had was on top of a piece of old wall at Hadleigh Castle. The chunk of old wall still exists but today you are no longer encouraged to climb old ruins like this.

Hadleigh Castle Then & Now, Hadleigh, Essex
by John Constable

Once we have got over being able to see the view and get into an approximation of the same position, the next fact we may discover is that the photo is a different shape, old pictures are squarer, while later ones are longer oblongs. Not a problem we can take the image and crop it afterwards.

Matching the image requires the same focal length, the longer the focal length, the more you will bring the background towards you and larger in comparison with the near area, using a wider angle, shorter focal length, makes the background move a lot further away, as well as giving you a wider view. In order to correct the view having selected the focal length that is right, you may have to move forward or backward.

Hadleigh Castle, Essex in 2010

The position available to you today is often not as practical as it was for the earlier photographer, they did not have a stream of traffic to watch out for, and could often get into positions now built on.

Most old cameras had lifting fronts and other arrangements to move the lens in relation to the film, so they could correct verticals, and had far more perspective control than on any camera and lens today. We can today do some of this with a perspective control lens, but few of us have these. Today we generally accept sloping buildings and the like. We can shoot wider and then put the verticals back upright in Photoshop, see Making Buildings Stand Up Straight.

The main problems in matching old images are:

  • forestation - far more and larger tress now

  • being able to get into the same position

  • roads widened

  • traffic

  • parked vehicles.

We could go a lot further for example looking at the shadows to see the time of day and matching this, or looking at the season of the year.

Creatively matching images can also be done, by this I mean putting something into the photo that is the equivalent of what was in an old photo. So for example people in the same place, but in modern costume, or a delivery lorry where a horse and cart was, or a modern train going along a line where an old train is seen.

In practice you often make the best compromise, its a different time of day, part of the year, not exactly the same in other ways but you can see how the location has changed between the two images. Sometimes the single early photo will have a set of modern ones as no single modern photo covers the same area, but several together illustrates what has occurred.


By: Keith Park Section: Photography Section Key:
Page Ref: photography_comparative Topic: Comparative Photography  Last Updated: 08/2010

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