Penn Station, New York, 1958
Three years ago, people were still complaining that photo-sharing websites like Flickr were home mostly to “thousands of pieces of shit” — few good photos, endless amounts of clichéd snapshots that nobody really wants to see.
Since then, of course, Flickr has proven its worth by attracting plenty of good, serious photographers, and inspiring many more to improve their work and learn more about photography. It has also become something unexpected: a window into the past. Recently, a number of organizations, including Library of Congress, NASA and the Ville de Montréal, have put portions of their photo archives on the website, taking advantage of its user-friendly format and ready-made connection to social networks.
Private individuals have followed their lead, giving old film photos new life. One such photographer is Nick DeWolf, a American engineer who lived in Philadelphia, Boston and later Colorado, and who never left home without a camera. For decades, starting in the 1950s, he documented almost everywhere he went. After DeWolf’s death in 2006, his son-in-law began putting his photos online.
There are now more than 43,000 images in DeWolf’s Flickr photostream, with 20 more added each day. Among these are scenes of everyday 1950s, 60s and 70s life in cities like New York, Boston and Hong Kong, shot with the passion, curiosity and loose focus of an amateur.
In a sense, DeWolf was doing half a century ago what countless others are doing today: documenting urban life. The difference is that, fifty years ago, there was no platform for amateur photographers to share their work, and no way for their photos to make an impact beyond a handful of family, friends and acquaintances. Digital cameras and the web have democratized photography, putting the capacity to create high-quality images in the hands of ordinary people.
Much in the same way, it has made the past accessible to everyone, not just those who make the effort to visit the library, boot up the microfiche machine and pour through the archives. Time travel is now possible: just go online.
Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, 1972
Haymarket, Boston, 1957
Central, Hong Kong, 1972
Chinatown, Boston, 1975
South End, Boston, 1972
French Quarter, New Orleans, 1968
London Underground, 1968
Restaurant in Quebec City, 1968
Tags: Boston, Hong Kong, London, New Orleans, New York, Photography, Then and Now