Dave Tomkins discovered the story behind his grandfather’s photos by retracing his steps. This photo is from Bern, Switzerland. (Photo by Stephen Clarke)
From Rome to New York to Zurich to Sydney, the vintage photos featured on the website Grandpa’s Photos will transport you to a bygone era in cities across the globe,
But they almost didn’t see the light of our digital day. It all began with a forgotten box tucked into the corner of a cupboard.
Dave Tomkins discovered the treasure in the home of his grandfather, Stephen Clarke, in 2009. Clarke, a former WWII Air Force navigator and traveling businessman, had just been moved into a nursing home, and the family was clearing out his home in Australia.
Inside the box, Tomkins found more than 400 35mm slides containing grainy, saturated images from Clarke’s business travels around the world.
A vintage photo of Stephen Clarke (courtesy of Stephen Clarke)
“I was there until one in the morning looking at slides and not helping to clean the house,” Tomkins, 34, tells Yahoo Travel. “There are a certain number of them that compositionally are really amazing. And you’ve got the old-worldly colors and fashion and cars, and that makes it a bit cooler.”
Tomkins, an art director who works in an industry where he’s constantly bombarded with and judging images, was impressed with his grandfather’s photography skills.
“He was such a stoic and humble guy,” Tomkins says. “When I went to show him these photos in the nursing home, I thought I was going to get stories out of him. He was like, ‘What else can we talk about, because I can’t remember.’”
Tomkins never did get those stories from his grandfather, who died in 2013 at the age of 90. Now he has made it his mission to identify the destinations featured in those vintage slides — then travel to those locations to recreate the shot.
His Grandpa’s Photos website honors his grandfather’s legacy while crowdsourcing information about what’s depicted in Tomkins’s favorite slides.
Flying over Lisbon, Portugal (Stephen Clarke)
“I put it up on my Facebook page, and it kind of went bananas,” he recalls, after publishing the site in June 2014. “Half of [the photos] are fuzzy. You’d look at them and go, ‘There’s no way he’s going to find that one.’”
But the website went viral, a few media outlets picked up the story, and the leads started flooding in from all over the world.
“I was getting hundreds of emails a day,” Tomkins recalls. “Really heartfelt, wonderful stuff from people saying, ‘I know where this is’ and ‘Seeing this inspired me to speak to my grandpa.’”
The site has triggered an outpouring of emotion and admiration that goes well beyond Tomkins’s original intention. As a result of this social media enthusiasm, he has managed to identify the location of all but two of the 50 photographs originally posted to the website.
According to Tomkins, the site has received more than 170,000 hits — not bad for something that originated as a side project.
An aerial view of New York City (Stephen Clark)
“I was hoping to get 20,000 hits,” he says with a chuckle. “I think I got that on day three.”
Tomkins, who quit his job in New York City shortly before launching Grandpa’s Photos, decided that since most of the photos had been identified within the first month, it was time for him to start click-click-clicking in his grandpa’s footsteps.
Armed with the same 35mm model Voigtländer Bessamatic camera used by his grandfather, Tomkins spent more than a month traveling across Europe and Asia, on his way home to Australia. Driving through Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and beyond, he leveraged his crowdsourced clues and local advice to find the precise location of each photograph. He then staged the shots just as his grandfather had framed them five decades earlier.
He has since posted the side-by-side comparisons to the website.
This journey within the bigger journey has brought Tomkins closer to his grandfather — and has given him a newfound respect for Clarke’s technical skills.
“That Voigtländer camera that he owned that I also had on my trip, it’s really hard to use,” he says. “You really have to think it through. You have to know your exposures and really think about everything before you press that button.”
Dave Tomkins retraced his grandfather’s journey by recreating his photos. (Dave Tomkins)
And what would Grandpa think about his grandson’s efforts today, if he were still around?
“I think he’d be absolutely blown away,” Tomkins says. “If he got his head around what the Internet is and how many people it could actually get to and touch, he’d be absolutely overwhelmed.”