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Exploring Old Photos Online: Newspapers’ Role As Metadata

A picture may say a thousand words, but it’s much more difficult to index.

Case in point: the New York Times archive. Doing a search for the address of Mediaite’s home office on Broadway turns up, disconcertingly, several turn-of-the-century fires* (one in 1879 and one in 1904 with a “peculiar quality of smoke”) and Broadway “ablaze” (with bunting, for the Centennial of the Constitution). But no photos.

(That is in part because photos in newspapers weren’t common until the early 20th century. When introduced, they were a game-changer. To this day, the logo for the Daily News shows an old-fashioned camera, still bragging about their photography.)

As I’ve discussed before, exploring history online through photography and video is one of the ancillary beneficiaries of increased network speeds. In a city with the overlap of technological ubiquity and deep history – such as New York – such exploration is still just our snowshoeing across the top of the iceberg.

That’s obvious as new images gain attention. The influential Kottke.org recently linked to a University of Indiana archive of color photos of New York from the 1940s and 1960s. The conversation centered on a common question for old photos – where, exactly, was this taken?

The key to answering such questions (beyond a proposal I’ll make at the end of this post) is the buildings. Like fingerprints, a neighborhood’s architecture reveals its identity – whether it’s the Chrysler Building or a tenement-style row house. For New York, the site NYC Architecture acts as the FBI database, an index of nearly every building of note. (For the sake of inspiring furious back-and-forth in the comments, I’m going to use “Manhattan” and “New York” pretty much interchangeably here. And there’s nothing you can do about it.) If you’ve always wondered about that interesting building at Beaver and Pearl, for example – it was the New York Cocoa Exchange. (For the sake of this article, I’m also going to pretend people care about buildings in the Financial District.) If it pops up in the background of a photo, now you know.

Maybe the building you’re looking for isn’t in that database. Maybe it’s just an old brick walk-up. Well, if it has any remnants of an old advertisement painted on it, you might still be in luck. Forgotten NY has an interesting collection of still-visible advertising on buildings around the city.

All of this takes a lot of work, of course, and doesn’t leverage the power of the distributed web. Enter a project called, uncreatively, Pictures of New York City. Built by Ontology2, the system culls images from public sources and sorts them by location, providing a robust way to coalesce images. (Yes, Google Maps already does this to some extent via Picasa, but the emphasis here is on the photos.) The success of this model, though, requires the owner of the photo to know what they’re looking at – or a camera that can accurately geolocate the image.

Which brings me back to the New York Times. Last month, they profiled the life of a building on the Bowery, with photos from 1940 until today. The piece is a wonderful look at the colorful history of the place, and the building – murder, theft, accidental deaths.

Amazingly, the photos that accompany the article come from the City’s Municipal Archives. I find it impossible to believe that over their 160-year history, with all of the things that have happened on the Bowery and at that address, they haven’t got a single picture of it. I think they probably do. Unlike the articles, though, it’s hard to know without putting in some time, going through some process like the above to figure out what each of the photos is, and where it was taken.

There are two ways, though, that the Times (or any paper) can build an incredible (and incredibly useful) database of geotagged photos.

The first is to transition to geolocative cameras or, if they aren’t doing so already, to add the location to the metadata of each photo as it is taken.

The second is to take advantage of the metadata that already surrounds these photos – the articles. Every article the paper has ever run has been in service to the story adjacent. It’s possible that there could be an automated system to pull the location from the accompanying article; it’s probable that to have a human do it would be trivial.**

Unlocking the archive of the Times would build the groundwork for the grand vision: a publicly accessible map littered with photos of every conceivable origin, each displayed according to where it was taken. Cities demolished in war would spring back to life. A corner we know intimately would stretch back over decades to show its birth and youth. Every new photo dug from an attic or discovered at a yard sale would fit like a puzzle piece into the portrait of our world, with increasing ease.

It’s a complex world, in which centuries of history went unrecorded. That era has ended. Every photo – even one taken at a birthday in a private kitchen, even one taken in Dallas, Texas, on November 19, 1963 – is a component of our collective past. Institutions like the Times have a tacit obligation to contribute their history to our collective understanding of our past. Everything we can do to support those efforts – we must. Everything we can do to expand on and explore these structures – we should.

* Which, I assume, has nothing to do with the upcoming office move.

** Ultimately, of course, humans will invent some software tool that will do all of this work for us. Researchers have already built systems that can recognize objects within video – deconstructing an old photo doesn’t seem too far down the path.

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