The Past Comes Alive: History in High-Definition

8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company
8x10 inch dry plate glass negative, Detroit Publishing Company
Philadelphia circa 1908. "Delaware Avenue, foot of Market Street."

There’s always something interesting about history—it’s often just a matter of knowing where to find it.

That’s the idea behind Shorpy.com, an eye-popping collection of historical imagery that casts a modern light on an astonishing array of photographs long-hidden in the Library of Congress archives. Named after a 12-year-old coal miner in a picture by the great Lewis Hine, Shorpy.com offers new, high-definition life to old images, restoring the often-breathtaking detail found in the original negatives: the uneven, rutted cobbles on a 1908 Philadelphia street, or the slight hint of alarm in the eye of a test pilot about to fly an aircraft in 1911.

In the last decade, the Library began digitizing specific sets of images in their 13-million-photo strong collection. Soon after, Dave Hall, the co-founder of Shorpy.com, began exploring their archives. Previously a Style editor at the Washington Post, Hall wasn’t especially interested in historical images until late one night, when he discovered several photographs of early 20th-century child laborers. Taken by Lewis Hine on an 8×10 view camera, Hall was amazed at the pictures’ clarity — sparkling with far more detail than a standard 35mm frame. Wondering why he had never before seen such strikingly detailed historical imagery, Hall took it upon himself to post the photos online, in high-resolution — an endeavor simplified by the LOC’s public-domain image rights.

That was in 2007. Now, six years later, Hall has worked his magic on more than 10,000 historic photographs, ranging from early tintypes of Native Americans to medium-format color slides of 1950′s suburbia. Hall mostly sources the site’s new images from the LOC’s raw high-resolution scans, then restores them to their original grandeur.

The physical reality of turn-of-the-century America — its machines, factories, tenements and faces — emerge as if unearthed from a time capsule. Quirky cultural artifacts that have always been with us — locked in photosensitive chemicals in the glass plates and nitrate negatives of the LOC’s Prints & Photographs Division — feel as new and, in many cases, as unexpected, as they were on the day they were shot.

But the primary value of Shorpy.com isn’t just found in the hundreds upon hundreds of restored images of Americana, trains, bathing contests, accidents, war ephemera, portraits of royalty, and the occasional sharecropper. It’s in the details that Hall has meticulously restored within each photograph that the true power of these pictures is found. Every image republished on Shorpy has been color corrected, toned, and sharpened — restoring the brilliant texture and jaw-dropping sharpness found in the original negatives and glass plates. These negatives have a tremendous amount of detail, Hall explains, but the Library of Congress’ scans often don’t reflect this. The details exist in the original negatives, but are frequently hidden in blown-out highlights and muddied shadows. So, with each image, Hall balances the exposure, correcting for the wear of time upon negatives that record a narrow but deep slice of American history.

Hall doesn’t modify the content of the images, either — all of his adjustments are carefully limited to the standards of which the original photographers would likely pursue. He is, in effect, a master digital restorer, working as a darkroom printer of the time period would have done while preparing the images for public exhibition.

Most — if not all — of these pictures have never before been displayed with such clarity, and certainly have never been enjoyed, by an audience as vast as the web. This is where Shorpy’s strength as a historical and cultural tool comes into its own. Images that were once considered only as objects of history are made immediate and relevant once again, in part because we’re able to see that life in the past isn’t quite as different from our world as we perhaps imagined it to be. Shorpy lets us see in detail the faces of the past — and they look, in essence, exactly like the faces we’d see today on any American street.

Perhaps even more amazing than the photos themselves, however, are the comments on the site, often made anonymously, that help to flesh out the huge story behind the photos — and, in a sense, behind the Library of Congress itself. Users of the site closely inspect the images, pointing out a range of details — everything from specific styles of clothing to the facial expressions of passersby reflected in store windows.

For history to be relevant, it has to not only be accessible, but detailed enough that it feels alive. By embracing the immeasurable value of America’s vast, public photo library, Shorpy has found an elegant way to engage a generation for whom, and on whom, the power and personality of history is often lost.


Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.


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