Time Travel With Nick DeWolf

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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.

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Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong, 1972

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Haymarket, Boston, 1957

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Central, Hong Kong, 1972

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Chinatown, Boston, 1975

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South End, Boston, 1972

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French Quarter, New Orleans, 1968

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London Underground, 1968

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Restaurant in Quebec City, 1968

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday November 21 2010at 10:11 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Europe, History, United States and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

5 Responses to “Time Travel With Nick DeWolf”

  • Des says:

    Relation?

  • D. says:

    Just imagine what we could have lost without those people, taking pictures of everything for themselves, just to remember…

    DeWolf remember me the works of Notman in Montreal, at the end of the 1800’s, archives that you can find at the McCord Museum…

    http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/

  • Mike says:

    I have found many great old pics by buying old photo lots at auctions. It’s truely amazing how many people are naturally good photographers.

  • Sue Anne says:

    Flickr is a very democratic space for sharing and learning photography. Comments abuse is limited (up to a point) by the fact that you require a profile, and hence take some semblance of responsibility. There are some incredibly talented people out there, but I admire them not only for their technique but passion and creativity. The fact that museums and cultural institutions are using this as a platform to share their work is very encouraging.

  • @Des: No relation, but I’ve gotten some emails over the years asking whether there’s any connection.

    @Sue Anne: I’m glad that more professional photographers have overcome their initial resistance to Flickr, the same way that journalists learned to accept social media. The attitude that good photography should be seen only in galleries, books and on fussy Flash websites is on its way out.