Monday, July 12, 2010

Imaging and Imagining Ourselves There: Flickr’s “Looking into the Past”

Most of us are familiar with Flickr, an online open source platform for sharing, tagging and talking about user-generated digital photos. Around 5,000 images get uploaded every minute, lending credence to the notion that many of us are operating in a techno-blur of obsessive documentation and display of our lives, our people, our surroundings.

Just like everyday life, these images blend the profound with the trivial, the ubiquitous with the obscure. Go to Flickr and you will have the opportunity to peruse photos organized into a dizzying array of categories, some as seemingly inane as “Empty Chairs” or “air conditioners,” or for all the Wallace and Gromit fans out there, “cheese.” But Flickr also encourages communities of photographers who share an interest in things like “urban decay in the U.S. South” to meet up in cyberspace. It amplifies and draws attention to things like Tyree Guyton’s Heidelberg Project, an urban regeneration initiative on Detroit’s east side that recycles discarded stuff to create a vibrant, creative space out of the dilapidation and decay of abandoned urban spaces.

So, is Flickr just a catch-all of contemporary imagery? An everyman’s archive that makes curators thankful that, in the past, it was a lot more difficult to document and preserve images and the results are a little more, umm, discerning? For people interested in preserving, exhibiting and connecting with the past from a public and democratic perspective, the site offers some interesting lessons even as it archives and displays photos that resonate with history.

In a recent article in the International Journal of Heritage Studies, Cristina Garduño Freeman makes the compelling argument that photosharing on Flickr reflects a new kind of “intangible heritage;” more than public archives of images, the photo galleries and the conversations that come out of them augur a new sort of public space. She writes, “Part of what makes participating on Flickr meaningful is the social interactions and negotiations that occur through the exchange and sharing of photographs.” (Cristina Garduño Freeman, “Photosharing on Flickr: intangible heritage and emergent publics” IJHS Volume 16, No. 4-5, July-September 2010, pp352-368.)

If you think about it from that perspective, Flickr makes it possible to create and sustain conversations through images about the personal, social and public meaning of places that matter to us. Lots of people are doing this through the “Looking into the Past” group, created by Flickr user Jason Powell over two years ago. Photographers all over the world are taking historic images and overlaying them onto contemporary spaces. Streetscapes, buildings, family gatherings in the backyard--to name just a few subjects--are undergoing visual transformations that mash up the past and the present. The results are visually arresting and really fun to look at. While many of the images are manipulated using scanners or photo-editing software, others are old-school versions in which the photographer simply holds the historic image in a way that positions it as an overlay of the present scene. Either way, each image is a ticket to time-travel, a disconcerting glimpse of past meeting present.

There is a lot of play here between people and places, an oddly compelling photographic effort to mess with time. Some of the images (like this one of the Historic Ebey House on Whidby Island, Island County, WA) situate contemporary subjects within a historic image, while others place people from the past within contemporary settings. Here, tea drinkers in Kew Gardens circa 1920 are seated within today’s park.

So, what’s so exciting about DIY montage? The project is intriguing for several reasons. For those making the photos, it encourages close observation, invites an awareness of the relationships between past and present, and allows one to dwell for a moment or two in that space that is neither here nor there, not quite now, not exactly then. “Looking into the Past” engages a sense of place and a sense of time that is unique, that draws on our senses and that captivates our imagination. The photographer and those who look at the images catch a fleeting glimpse of our place in time as one that is simultaneously ephemeral and lasting.

The conversations and discussions that emerge are compelling. It is interesting to see the sharing of technical expertise about how to make these photos in the discussion pages of the “Looking into the Past” pool. From advice as simple as “Don't go out on a windy day. It is IMPOSSIBLE to hold up a print if it's windy,” to specific and detailed suggestions on photo-editing strategies, the best of the Web 2.0 knowledge commons is at work. People share ideas, insights and tricks. They also compliment each other and make one another visible in the process. The discussions are not all technical. Here and there, people who live in the same vicinity talk about the state of urban preservation or the uncanny lack of change in a particular place. Photographers who return to the scene of a train crash or protest spur conversations about those historic events.

Finally, for those of us who are interested in how people interact with the past in the course of their everyday lives, this project is a kind of twenty-first century coda to Thelen and Rosenzweig’s The Presence of the Past. It lets us see and understand how the past matters to the thousands of people posting images in the “Looking into the Past” gallery. The results are similar – lots of personal and family images, hundreds of storefronts, well-traveled routes in one’s hometown, sites of personal and private meaning. There are a few politicized images, like a 4-image composite of a street scene in Vancouver where police charged a demonstration of unemployed people, but most of the images are scenic, architectural, or deeply personal. In case we were wondering, as global citizens, we care an awful lot about the past, but most of us reserve enthusiasm for “our” past.

More than anything, “Looking into the Past” makes me want to dig out my camera and scour historic images and then seek out their contemporary counterparts in space. It makes me want to play with time and place, and to imagine different histories in the process. Pretty exciting!

~ Margo Shea

Ed. note: The image at the top of this post is of Eden Place, Birmingham, England.


  1. Margo, "Looking into the Past" should come with a warning that browsing could be addictive. This is a wonderfully cool site, but as you note, the images are scenic, architecturally playful, and deeply personal—rarely provocative or gritty. After the novelty began to wear off, I had to ask myself what I was learning by peering into the personal pasts of a self-selecting group of participants.
    In some respects, this pastime strikes me as akin to the semi-clandestine sport of urban exploration. I use the word “pastime” because, like urban exploration, there are elements of tourism and consumerism at work here, but not the element of risk. I also note that while the images and participant pool are international, there is not much real cultural diversity among them.

  2. Posted on behalf of Margo Shea:

    Rebecca's thoughtful commentary, particularly her suggestion that partly what constitutes a pastime is the touristic, consumer-focused, risk-free nature of an activity, got me thinking about Susan Sontag, and her argument that photography itself is about power - that the seemingly innocent act of pointing/shooting becomes an act of voyeurism and appropriation, and that by virtue of looking at photographs the viewer gets wrapped up in complicity with these acts. Sontag joined art historians like Berger and Barthes in this kind of analysis of ways of viewing and ways of seeing.

    I think it is important to consider what we are doing when we are taking and looking at photographic images, but so much of the criticism leads down conceptual dead ends when it comes to making sense of popular, and populist engagements with history. For each of us that seeks a gritty, usable, complicated past, there are legions who, to go back to Lowenthal, travel there in search of solace, distraction, entertainment. I know I flip back and forth. (I confess to an embarrassing interest in BBC period pieces where the pace is slow, the vocabulary is impressive, the clothes are pretty and the pastoral landscapes are soothing.) Ordinary busy people, living ordinary busy lives are drawn to the past for reasons that differ from the historians' passions and commitments. Isn't that OK?

    What remains promising, interesting and exciting to me about things like "Looking into the Past" is the engagement, curiosity and willingness to enter into dialogue - both with the past and with others who share an interest in visual experimentation.

  3. A bit of new technology that will make this easier: see here, at


  4. Thanks, Margo, for introducing me to the Heidelberg Project! As a new Michigan resident, I'm interested in discovering its most unique places. The site's "20 achievement" page reveals a fascinating account of how a forgotten place, made special by the efforts of its inhabitants, evolves as it encounters attention from "mainstream" art sources, municipal restrictions and, more recently, environmental boosters. I can't wait to check this place out!
    More related to the Flickr site, if you haven't had a chance to check out LookBackMaps, I'd highly recommend it as a companion to the Flickr site. LookBackMaps takes the notion of historical-geographical tourism a step further by overlaying images on google maps.

  5. Another form of looking into the past: WWII images superimposed on the same site today: Interesting in that this seems to reveal the ghosts of history in a way that most of the US sites do not - to some extent, this site addresses Margo Shea's concerns, perhaps?

  6. Adina --

    Thanks so much for posting the link to Look Back Maps. Seems like the founder of the site, Jon Voss, is doing some very cool stuff with civil war era sources. There is a webcast of a lecture he gave this past spring on "Exploring the Use of Linked Data to Bridge State and Federal Archive," which I couldn't get to open, but his slides from the lecture are posted here:

  7. Steven's link is really worth checking out.

    The images remind me a little bit of the work of artist Shimon Attie, who uses slide projections to superimpose historical images of vibrant Jewish neighborhoods in Berlin onto those same spaces today. Also, the work of Krzysztof Wodiczko comes to mind --
    Here is something about him from website Art 21

    "He creates large-scale slide and video projections of politically-charged images on architectural façades and monuments worldwide. By appropriating public buildings and monuments as backdrops for projections, Wodiczko focuses attention on ways in which architecture and monuments reflect collective memory and history."

    What I find interesting about this stuff is that it is ephemeral -- it is only up for a day or two. I wonder if this makes it more or less powerful than the kind of images Sergey Larenkov is creating, or the Flickr stuff.