Tuesday 2 March 2010

The City in Sepia

Every now and again I come across a website that I know is going to take up far too much of my time. SepiaTown is most definitely one of those. The idea is a simple one, combining Google maps with historical photos, but the philosophy behind the site runs much deeper than that. Here I speak to Jon Protas, one of the three founders of the site, about his plans for the project and about how individuals can help recreate history.

Why did you create SepiaTown?
I was sitting on a rooftop in Amsterdam in 2005, daydreaming in that Amsterdam kind of way, and had a sudden urge to be able to see the city skyline with all the modern buildings blocked from view. I pictured a viewer that would be a historic image but with holes cut out for the buildings that were still standing in modern times. After thinking about it for a year or two, and not coming up with anything more practical than a kind of Viewmaster, the release of the iPhone made it clear that a website and mobile app were the best approach. I got in touch with designer Eric Lehnartz and developer Eric Warren, and after about a year of intensive work, we finally launched what we think of as the site in its earliest form, while we continue to develop new features like the mobile version, filtering by date and media type, and others.

What cities are featured so far? What will be featured in the future?
We launched with six cities; Paris, New York, San Fransisco, London, Moscow and Amsterdam. As for the future, well there's no limit. We built
SepiaTown because we wanted anyone anywhere to be able to see the past in an instant. Anyone can upload images, which, if you choose, can be accompanied by a link to your site.

What purpose do you think your website will serve?
We'd like it to do a couple of things: bring history to life in a completely new way by giving people a site-specific window on the past; and inspire history lovers around the world by giving them a place to put their historical images, which we hope will lead to a broader and more complete picture of history as it was lived.

Before and after shots using an image of my street taken from SepiaTown and a photo I took last Sunday afternoon. It is interesting to see that McDonalds has replaced a dentist! The tramway is long gone and you no longer see horses on the streets of Paris, but very little else has changed.

How do you see it developing in the future?
First and most importantly, we hope that more and more people will upload material. That's the key to the future of the site--a history that's built by the public, using material from institutions and private individuals. Our plan is for institutions and archives to come to think of SepiaTown as a place that can help them to reach a wider community. We'd like SepiaTown to become the first place people go when they want to see how a place has looked through history. We see it becoming an educational tool, and a way for students to become more involved in their own local history, and we think it will give travelers a cool new way to tour the world, either sitting at their computer or by using their mobile devices while they wander around a new city.

There seem to be no suggested dates on the site. Where does history start or stop?
We have a rough sense of the cutoff date of modernity as being 25 to 30 years ago; this seems to be long enough for there to be real visible change in architecture and design that makes it a clear difference to the eye. We don't really have a maximum age; we'd be very happy to see people uploading old drawings of ancient Rome, for example, or sketches of setlements in pre-colombian America.

A picture of the Boulevard du Temple by Louis Daguerre from 1838, the
earliest photo to feature a human (here having his shoes shined).

You talk about wishing to 'map a virtual past'. Do you think it is important for cities to keep traces of how things used to be?
I'm not sure it's the responsibility of cities to do that, although it would be great if they could and would. In a way we're inviting people to take responsibility themselves and upload their own collections, or seek out publicly owned images to share.

We definitely believe that historical archives, as guardians of public memory, have some level of responsibility to share that memory with the community--not just in their immediate area, but the larger world. Most archives want to do this, and many of them spend a lot of time and money trying to figure out ways to reach the public. We think that SepiaTown can help them.

The project is interactive and community based. Is it important for you to involve as big a number of people as possible?
Definitely; the more people who are involved and who tell other people, the more images we hope will fill the maps, and the more complete the picture of the past we'lll be able to provide.

Our ideal is for people in small towns and foreign countries to be thinking "these photos from the Library of Congress are great, but my grandfather had a stack of old pictures from when there was only one street in town. Why don't I upload those?"

That's what we hope will happen as people learn about the site and start wondering where their slice of SepiaTown is.

Is it your intention to extend the service to include film and sound archives?
We're working on that right now. Sound, film, 3D images,and ephemera such as posters, souvenirs, etc, pertinent to the location will all have a place on the site.



parisimperfect said...

Wow! What an interesting concept and website. (Though I didn't need another site to eat my time, either :)
I'm glad my two favorite cities - New York and Paris are already on the list. Will be interesting to see where it expands now and who will contribute. Thanks, as always, for an interesting read.

TravelingProfessor said...

If you look on eBay, you can often find some old French postcards that are in the same theme as those presented in the website.

Tim said...

Sepia heaven!

Adam said...

TravelingProfessor: Yes, the pictures that are currently on the site are mostly those that you could find in old postcard shops, but there are also several unusual ones from the National Library of Congress. However, what I particular like about the site is two things:
- It is clean, simple, attractive and easy to use.
- I can imagine it in a few years time when it will be filled with film and sound archives, professional and personal memorabilia and links to more in-depth resources.

It has the potential to become a unique resource for those passionate about the history of cities.

Anonymous said...

I may have to go into sepia rehab.
I'm already addicted.


Cergie said...

Tout d'abord avant que j'oublie : vas tu parler de l'expo du musée Carnavalet "L'impossible photographie, prisons parisiennes (1851-2010)". Elle me fait penser qu'on n'a pas beaucoup de photos des camps de concentration nazis en activité

Toutes ces photos posent un problème d'archivage et de méthode. Je suis épatée qu'avec Google map on puisse se promener dans une rue, dans ma rue de banlieue maintenant (pas tout à fait encore, mais c'est fait sur la rue sur laquelle donne ma villa)
Tu sais, depuis que je prends des photos, il n'y a pas si longtemps, j'ai vu évoluer et bientôt disparaitre des bâtiments d'intérêt historique, comme une distillerie d'alcool de betterave ou un ancien relais de poste. Et même des arbres : un magnifique tilleul que j'aimais regarder a été taillé. Des champs se construire. C'est ainsi...

J'ai des photos de famille très anciennes. Sépias. Et bien il faut faire très attention / la lumière qui les efface. Comme la mémoire.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy seeing updates for the locations of old photographs! This is especially the case with really early ones (such as those from the 1830's etc) where one gets to see how those locations transformed through multiple photos of the same view taken decades apart! It fascinated me so much I even made a page on the subject of rephotography on FB: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Rephotography/159026447569668?ref=ts&fref=ts

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