Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Dead Photographer's Society
Can inspiration come from the other side?
Once in a while, a client will ask us to reference an old, yellowy photograph of some historic property and re-create the exact shot to emphasize the change over a period of time, usually between 80-100 years.
I really have fun doing forensic photography because it's like solving a puzzle with a mini-trip through time. In fact, if you're good at this sort of thing, you can find out where the photographer stood with his camera, the focal length of his lens, aperture, brand of camera, type of film, tripod height, time of year he shot and what the weather was like on that day. If the shot includes any moving objects (cars, people, etc.), you could also guess the shutter speed and therefore, if he used a tripod or just held the camera in his hands. (Sure, I'm assuming the original photographer was male. He could have been a she but most likely he was the photographer and she was at home. Things have changed, thank heavens.)
Using perspective is the key to finding the exact angle the dearly-departed photographer used. Keeping an eye on the shape of the facade, walk left and right until the sides of the structure line up with the old shot (if there are adjacent structures, use those facades as an additional reference). Then, to find the exact spot where the photographer stood, walk forward and backward until the roofline is the same exact shape (keeping an eye out for the 6-lane highway that might have been built in the interim).
Our first forensic shoot was for Terra, the Miami developer who asked us to fully document the Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard. Built in 1925 by Schultze & Weaver Architects, the building originally housed the newsroom and presses of the Miami News & Metropolis. I took the above shot with the Bayside mall signage right behind me. When I looked down, trying to find the old photographer's footprints, all I could see was fresh cut grass.
More recently, a shoot in Chicago included the Butler Brothers old warehouse building (now high-end residential lofts with steel balconies overlooking the river). The original shot was done on an overcast day in 1928 and while I think we replicated the weather, shadows and angle of the roofline, we couldn't back up to the original photographer's spot because there's now a traffic signal in the way. As I'm standing there on Canal Street, coughing from the bus fumes, I can hear a bygone photographer's voice telling me, "at least you don't have to smell the horse fumes."