If you’ve spent a few hours going through an old family album, it’s likely that you were surprised by a number of things pictured there, such as fashions, traditions, architecture, and technology, to name a few. As I research images for the National Geographic Found archival Tumblr, I’m constantly amazed at the ways our world has changed. Almost more important, I’m touched by the ways the world and human experience have stayed the same. It’s strange how some places and people feel familiar, even though I’ve never seen or met them. No matter how much the world changes around us, there are a few human truths that seem timeless.
The goal of this assignment is to make images that transcend time (remember you only have 3 submissions, so choose carefully). The photographs will speak through content and style, but try to avoid relying too heavily on style. By all means, use photo filters, apps, wet plates, and analog film, but please don’t let a filter be your crutch. Look for people, places, and moments that feel timeless.
Here are a few ideas to start off your adventures in time travel: explore historically preserved places, look for things or people that show traces of the past, and take in moments of human connection that are universal. History echoes itself wherever we go, as in how this 1997 photo from Found shows young girls gazing at a rock in a thermal spring much in the same way girls today look at their smartphones. It’s entirely possible to make current-day photographs that bend our perception of time, like these incredible tintype pictures of Civil War re-enactors. Stop, pause, and observe your native landscapes until something speaks to you.
Go to the places where your memories live and make new ones.
Thank you for your contributions!
Behind the Edit
Some of you have been stumped by how this final story turned out. It seems that some people expected something more literal, while others a more abstract collection. With every one of these assignments, the final pictures are selected by one person who has their own vision and ideas about the story. Yes, the selection process is subjective, just as it’s intended to be.
For me, the pictures I chose are reflective of what I hope are common human experiences and have a quality to them that is not dated. Not all photographs are timeless. The date of a photograph can often be easily guessed just by looking at the clothing, technology or architecture in the image. What I was looking for is pictures that can’t have a date assigned to them or at least have a feel that matches photographs from the past. I wanted images that can be looked at in five or ten years and not feel dated. My curation approach to the Found Tumblr blog is structured around this concept: that some pictures, no matter how old they are, can feel contemporary. That is what I mean by timeless. For example, the image of the woman walking up the opera house stairs could have been made in the 60s, 70s or 80s. The reason these pictures feel contemporary is because they are executed in an inventive, interesting way, and they show subject matter that is universally human, undeniably sincere, or simply awe-inducing.
Since the advent of Instagram and Hipstamatic, the idea of adding film filters to digital photographs has become increasingly popular. As we use these different methods that marry old and new, I believe that it makes the past seem more familiar and less distant.
I feel very strongly that many of the images I selected for this assignment would blend in on Found. The fact that your pictures could easily sit among National Geographic magazine’s greats is a testament to the potential in you all.
As I said before, this assignment was not an easy one. It asked you to listen, to try and absorb a very nuanced and abstract concept. These assignments are meant to teach you and show you what it’s like to work for an editor. They’re not meant to be a contest. I urge you to take every new assignment as a chance to challenge yourself and learn, most importantly. Compete with yourself, not your digital neighbors. Each time you make a new photograph, ask yourself, was that better than the last?
Multiple Focal Points
When I look through Found photos, I want to feel that they are exciting or awe-inducing. Sometimes what makes or breaks an image is an extra focal point. For wide shots like beautiful landscapes or cityscapes, the sight of a small person in the distance helps emphasize the scale of the place. It also shows a moment, an interaction between the person and the world around them. It helps me connect to the scene.
As I’m going through submissions, I’m seeing a lot of missed opportunities. Landscapes that don’t benefit from a second focal point and images of people taken from behind. Sure, sometimes a silhouette can be really nice, but if I can’t see a person’s expression I often feel like I’m missing out on a moment.
When you’re beginning to learn photography, it’s important to understand your camera and how to make a technically sound photograph with it. As you move from that phase and become more advanced, you begin to learn how to use your viewfinder to control a scene. As you progress in learning how to move your body and how to see a scene happening in front of you, your images get progressively more complex. That is when you make meaningful and exciting photographs.
There are only two days left to submit. Keep pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone and watch for some amazing moments!
Moving From "Me" to "We"
When I’m selecting photos for the Found Tumblr, I always have to keep my audience in mind. Sometimes there’s a photograph that I love but I know won’t get a strong response from the audience. It’s important for me to pick things that will have wide appeal.
This is also one of photographers’ biggest struggles. How do I self-edit? It’s easy to get caught up in how you felt when you were taking the picture. Unfortunately, whatever you felt at the time is often lost on other people, because it involves emotions and things that aren’t in the photograph. When you look at your own pictures, try thinking about how it might look to someone else. Would that stranger be impressed with your sunset or rusty old truck? Would they care how much time and effort you put into it?
Timelessness is all about transcendence and relatability. It’s about the moments that will appeal to people today and tomorrow. So before you click the shutter or submit, think of your audience.
Did you know they had wave pools in the 1930s? This photograph was shot on a color wet plate, before the advent of color film. Even though the swimsuits and swim caps are vintage, the content–people gathering around a body of water and enjoying themselves–feels familiar and timeless.
Photograph by Hans Hildenbrand
Ok, so hear me out on this photo of women using compact mirrors to catch sight of the queen in London in 1966. Yes, the hair and clothes are dated. But the moment in this picture is so transcendent that you spend most of your time looking at the faces and expressions. The compact mirrors could easily be replaced with smartphones or video cameras.
Photograph by James P. Blair
In this 1943 image of Bolivian women in a department store, the vintage appliances almost feel futuristic. The clash of indigenous cultures and modern technology is an ongoing issue that will continue to unfold over the coming years. Again, the photo is dated in many ways, but the story has value that extends beyond its time.
Photograph by Fenno Jacobs
One of the key things I’m always looking for in a good image is layering. Layering can refer to few different things. In some cases, it’s literally just multiple physical elements converging in a frame. Other times, it’s the message or meaning of the image that is layered.
Sometimes an image that lacks layering or context can be successful, but in my mind the images that are skillfully layered usually end up being the most intriguing. Finding ways to layer is not an easy task, and it’s an important one for this assignment. Try to avoid submitting single layered images of one subject. Also, steer away from focusing on inanimate objects, simply retro things or weathered buildings. Timelessness is all about moments, so if there isn’t a “moment” happening in front of you, then you probably shouldn’t click the shutter.
One other note: when photographing people, carefully watch their face and expressions. If their face is blank or showing a one-dimensional emotion, i.e. happiness or sadness, it’s probably going to feel emotionally flat. Look for the right sparkle in the eye or knitting of the brow.
Guest Contributor Chris Wild of Retronaut
While I’ll be the primary editor for this story, we’ll have guest comments and contributions from Chris Wild of Retronaut. Chris is a master archivist who knows how to find images that are the epitome of timelessness. You can usually find Chris in a classic red leather jacket with his signature Retronaut goggles slung around his neck.
If you love vintage photographs, be sure to pre-order the upcoming book Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine.