A fusion of the James Gray Collection and today's Brighton.
The title, 'synergy' is a bit tongue in cheek, as the original photographers are no longer around to collaborate with; however, I am sure that they would be happy for their images to be used for the purposes of documenting change in the city.
*This is not the finished article; this is the concept, the journey, part 1 of an ongoing project*
Who is James Gray?
James Gray was a collector, someone that had a passion for hoarding. He started off collecting stamps, however around the 1950's he took it upon himself to create the largest collection of historic photographs of Brighton. His catalogue now has 39 volumes and comprises of some 7500 photographs, each categorised for different parts of the city. After passing in 1998, his collection was purchased by the Regency Society.
What has this got to do with your project Ben?
I am an Architect, and I photograph a lot of buildings, for work and for pleasure. I am currently working on a property in Western Road, built circa 1930, and as part of the restoration the Planning Department expect the windows to be returned to their original design. A short trip to a place called 'The Keep' where Brighton and Hove's historical records are kept, and find the original Architect's drawings and some photographs of my building under construction. Thank you James Gray. Now I can design the windows according to how they were almost a century ago.
I am fascinated with old photographs of locations that I know well. Of course buildings are adapted, sometimes demolished, but generally if you watch an old movie it is not the architecture that dates the movie; it is the cars, the clothing, furniture etc. Architecture is the constant...generally.
The above photograph is the Western Road that locals would recognise, however there are no bus lanes, no bins, no modern high rise flats, less street lights, less signs. It all seems very hectic and busy today when you look back at these photographs.
This got me thinking. I wonder how much the seafront has changed over the last 100 years?
This 'aha' moment made me conjure up a plan to follow in the footsteps of the original photographers, to essentially take a 'now and then' photograph, in some instanced a century apart.
The Postcard shots
There are better known locations than Western Road, so I contacted the Regency Society and explained that I am working on a personal project, and I would like to use images from the James Gray Collection in an attempt to replicate the photographs. Kindly they agreed. Of course I choose iconic landmarks along the seafront, and at the same time learn a lot about the history of the seafront, the piers and the Volks Railway. For example, did you know that both of the piers had large sections destroyed by bombs in the war? Beach huts used to be on wheels, and ladies would be 'wheeled' down to the water edge to provide them with privacy whilst swimming. Most locals know about the chain-link pier and the daddy long legs that were east of the palace pier. The original Sealife centre (formerly known as The Aquarium) is below ground, and what you see today was built on top of the original building. Anyway, enough of the history lesson.
Now...over to me.
In an ideal world I would use the exact cameras/lenses that the original photographers used. However this isn't a commercial project, and I don't have a clue how to use a traditional view camera with glass plates and where you might get something like that developed. These traditional cameras used bellows to correct perspective and keep buildings straight in the photographs, without distortion. I have the modern equivalent, which is a tilt-shift lens, and should achieve similar results. Now all I have to do is literally follow in the footsteps of the photographers to stand in the exact locations and line up my camera with the originals.
So there I am on the Bandstand, ipad in one hand and camera on tripod to my right. The ipad shows a photograph taken from that exact same spot over 80 years ago. In front of me are two guys playing table tennis, lots of people walking on the promenade, taking photos, and in the distance is a children's play area with the i360 looming over everything. I turn back to the ipad and there are no traffic jams, a few horses litter the street, and the Victorian attire makes everyone look like they are on their way to a special occasion. The children's play area is simply an oval piece of lawn, a luxury in a prime spot on the seafront, but the recently restored kiosks of the i360 bring some familiarity to the scene. I stop reminiscing and remember why I am there.
Take the photo already...
All of the technicalities of film/sensor size, perspective, time of day/season etc aside, I still have to line up the shot to align with the original. This sound easy, however there are very few buildings on the seafront that were there a century ago. What I have learnt from doing this project is that there were some lovely buildings that were demolished to make way for some of the less desirable buildings that have a sea view today. But...from the Bandstand anyway, there are quite a few elements that I can line up the camera with. For starters the Bandstand hasn't moved, which is handy, the street lights and the bench shelters are generally in the same place, as are the concrete steps that lead from the promenade to the beach. This is enough to work with.
The West Pier
The West Pier is one of my favourite things to point my camera at, however a large amount of the James Gray Collection photographs of the seafront were taken from the West Pier, which is inconvenient. I would love to have seen the view from this pier, but it seems to be more of an attraction now that it is just the core structure that remains! But this West Pier 'issue' is similar to a lot of the images from the James Gray Collection, and that is I can only take the same shot if that location has not changed. Knowing the seafront well, I chose the images that I know I could recreate, and I set to work.
How to show a 'now and then'
There are many ways of showing two images of the same thing before and after. Websites allow sliders to allow the user to glide between the two images. I could simply put the two side by side to enjoy them both. They could be blended, black and white versus colour. Only show the differences, or gradually fade from one to the other. Create a slideshow and transition between the images. What to do...
These images that I have put together so far are pretty crude, they are no photoshop master piece - but this is part 1 of the project where I test out what works and what doesn't. Now that I can see whether my images sit well when overlaid with the originals, I can invest a lot more time in the digital dark room. What I have noticed is that the majority of the original photos were taken from a slightly raised vantage point, approximately 3m in the air, which is evident in the in the way that the camera is quite a bit higher than head height. Maybe they were on a horse cart of a some sort of platform? How am I going to replicate this?
So what is in store for part 2?
Well, I am going to do it properly. A part of my job involves creating photo-realistic CGI's of properties/developments. The key to a successful visualisation is matching the 3d model of the proposed to the existing contextual photograph, in every aspect. This includes resolution, colour temperature, direction of light, quality of light, reflections in glazing etc. I will revisit my top selected images, and make sure that all of the elements are in place. This might involve waiting for the right season to get the shot. I will no doubt have to add some degrading effects to the modern photos, to make them sit well together. Below are a selection of 'mock-ups' that I have been working on so far. I am going to put it to a public vote which images will make part 2 of the project.
Thanks for reading!