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Friday, February 18, 2011

Photography and the History of Places

Paris 1940 and 2010:  German cavalry on the Avenue Foch by Sergey Larenkov.

Rephotography is an attempt by a photographer to retake a photo at a different time but from the same viewpoint.  The comparison of resulting photographs can be noteworthy, often jolting.  This isn't an easy endeavor.  Achieving the same viewpoint can be difficult, but computer software is being developed to help. Using such software is called computational rephotography.

Defenders of the city at the Hotel Astoria by Sergey Larenkov.

Researchers at MIT are currently using a laptop to automate the process.  The plan is to create software that will fit inside a digital camera.  This software system would compare what's seen in the viewer with a historical photo, determine the alignment, then issue instructions to the photographer.  This is called visual homing.

Paris 1940 and 2010:  Rue de Rivoli by Sergey Larenkov.

Superimposing an old photo over a modern one can produce a striking experience. There is a website called historypin that is a global project launched in London last June.  It is a project of the "We Are What We Do" organization as part of their campaign to get people of different generations talking to one another.  By sharing old photos with new ones, they hope to create a "digital time machine".  Working with Google, they used Google maps and Street View functions to build the site. Photos are "pinned" to their geographical locale, and everyone is encouraged to post a piece of their own history.

Sergey Larenkov is a Russian photographer and photoshop artist who uses images of WWII for his work.  His photos are often haunting; superimposing bleak and disturbing images of war over modern ones in times of peace can produce discordant and perturbing reactions.  He has been criticized for not creating smoother, more integrated works, but I think that it may be his intention to keep the jagged, often disruptive look - like memories that come bursting into the frame.


By his own admission the siege of Leningrad, his hometown, made an impression on him.  His work includes images of the defense of Moscow, the liberation of Vienna and Prague, the storming of Berlin, and the occupation of Paris.  The sometimes rather brutal images of an era that most young people don't really know about and most of the rest would like to ignore directly confront one and remind one how easy it is to bury and forget the past.


The Siege of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg, was an unsuccessful military attempt by the Axis powers to capture the city; it was also known as the Leningrad Blockade.  This siege, lasting from September 9, 1941, to January 27, 1944, was one of the longest and most destructive sieges of any major city in modern history. Many thousands of people died, having been deprived of food and fuel for heating.  People took to eating anything they could get their hands on, even in extreme cases each other.

Supply problems also affected the citizens of occupied Paris.  However the French were slightly better off than the citizens of Leningrad.  Tickets were given out to be exchanged for food supplies.  There was also a black market.  People tried buying directly from farmers, but this was at high risk.  In general, things were worse in the city, as in the countryside there were some vegetable gardens and dairy products were more easily available.  It was a difficult and oppressive time for many European nations.

Larenkov's works are a startling evocation of those times, and the juxtaposition of the war-time images with modern ones are dissonant and strident reminders of a horrible past.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, what better way to communicate the difference between war and peace?

All images courtesy of Sergey Larenkov.
Please visit his journal and/or website to see all his images.

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