Tuesday, February 9, 2010


(This was just an odd article that never found a home.)

I have a fascination for films from the Silent Era. While the reasons are obvious--it's living, breathing archaeology--I'm constantly drawn to the backgrounds. I'll see a tree swaying in the breeze and be instantly reminded that it's swaying in 1922 or 1926 or 1930. I see babies and toddlers in crowd scenes and wonder if they're still alive and how many great-grandchildren they now have.

Shorpy.com taps into that basic attraction. This astonishing website, named after a teenage coal miner from a century ago, features thousands of high-definition photographic images from bygone eras that will allow you see an almost unprecedented amount of detail. You can choose from a variety of galleries such as Pretty Girls, Aviation, Civil War (obviously not for the squeamish), Cars & Trucks, Cities, Railroads, Service Stations and Kids, with most images presented with very few flaws. (A few specks of dirt here and there reveal that most of these photographs were created with a flatbed scanner.)

If you want a real treat, check out the section on 4 X 5 Kodachrome transparencies. Most of these images were captured during World War II, yet look clear and revealing as if they were taken earlier this morning. It's strange and fascinating to peer deep into the eyes of a gorgeous young woman of college age and realize that she's now in her '70s or '80s. Seeing soldiers man their guns or sit in the cockpits of their airplanes offers an immediate and visceral connection that no memory, however sharp, can replicate. When you see the panoramic shots of major American cities such as Detroit in 1942, it's hard to believe that those streets don't look the same today. It's only after you see the steady parade of old cars and men wearing suits and hats that you begin to have a feel for time and place.

The Shorpy Gift Emporium also features fine art prints of most of these images through the Juniper Gallery, along with an assortment of WPA posters, fruit crate artwork and vintagraphs. It's easy to lose a few hours poring over all of these galleries, but it will be worth it.

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