New York photographer reshoots century-old scenes for armchair time travelers

New York photographer reshoots century-old scenes for armchair time travelers
·Claudine Zap

Photos capture memories. Jordan Liles has used images to connect to the past – and, he hopes, to help him remember the present in the years to come.

His George Bradford Brainerd Project shows scenes from across New York City, photographed in the 1800s by Brainerd and then painstakingly rediscovered in the modern day by Liles himself. On Liles' site, you can toggle back and forth between each view: First you see how it looks now, and then you either touch (on a mobile device) or mouse over (on a desktop) the image to be taken about 140 years into the past at the same spot. Click here or the image above to see bigger versions the now-and-then images on Yahoo Homes.

"This project is my way of giving back to the city that has given so much to me," Liles, 31, told Yahoo Homes.

On a walk in August, he happened upon the Brooklyn Collection at the Grand Army Plaza branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. There, he discovered a trove of photographs by George Bradford Brainerd, a little-known innovator who captured everyday images of Brooklyn in the 1870s and '80s. (Liles credits the thesis of Julie C. Moffat for informing him of Brainerd.)

Liles, who had done several series of abandoned places, comparing their present state with historic photographs, decided he had found his next subject.

Locating the sites, some beyond recognition all these years later, was no easy task. Although some of the landmarks were obvious — the Brooklyn Bridge, for example — others involved Sherlock Holmes-like investigation techniques.

Liles discovered that the Brooklyn Daily Eagle had a goldmine of online archives dating to 1841: "Any time I would see words on a photograph, I could search the website and find results. Looking at many search results, I was often able to find advertising for the company I saw on the photo, and it would have a street address."

He'd then bike to the site and try to re-create the shot.

For example, the old black-and-white photo of people enjoying a summer day in Manhattan's Central Park includes the Bethesda Fountain, topped by an angelic statue. The statue is often seen in movies and visited by tourists.

The photo morphs into a modern-day version in sharp color. Same place, different camera. The similarities are no accident. Liles shot the image at the same time of day so that the shadows would appear almost identical.

"I made sure that attention to detail was a big part of all of this, even though I knew that people would view a photo, look for one to two seconds and move on," he recalled.

His favorite: "I really love the Green-Wood Cemetery photograph. Brainerd shot the image from one of the highest points in the cemetery."

He described the place as "massive." "When I finally found the right place ... I looked out into the distance. I saw ships in the water, just as Brainerd saw some 140 years earlier. It was a memorable moment."

During the shoots, Liles was surprised to discover that the area around Brooklyn's Borough Hall looks nothing like it used to. "I believe it's an area where the historic Fulton Street used to extend, but today it's a pedestrian plaza."

Despite some of the bigger changes, Liles believes that Brooklyn residents of the bygone times aren't that different from the ones today. "In Brainerd's photos you see families enjoying picnics, kids playing fetch with dogs, friends enjoying the beach, and people having a nice day in the park."

He added, "Whenever I was out capturing photos on all those weekend mornings, it didn't feel like those people from the 1870s and '80s were here all that long ago."

We're guessing no one was taking selfies back then.

Follow Claudine Zap on Twitter (@zapkidd).

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