VANCOUVER – During every anniversary of the Halifax explosion, which flattened large swaths of the city and killed nearly 2,000 people on Dec. 6, 1917, residents in the region are peppered with exhaustive accounts of the blast and historic photos that document the destruction.
But residents of the Nova Scotia capital had a new way to experience the 94-year-old disaster last month with the help of an app that allowed them to tour the city and compare old photographs of the devastation with the city as it is today using their smartphones.
The app is called Historypin. It’s one of a growing number of services that combine new technology with old photos to connect with the past, from software that allows users to travel back in time to a blog that encourages visitors to share their own dated photos along with the stories behind them.
Historypin is the creation of U.K.-based We Are What We Do, which worked with Google to design a website that encourages users to upload historic photographs and then use Google Maps and Streetview to “pin” them to the exact spot they were taken.
Users can then line up the photos over top of the modern-day landscape in Google Streetview, and then flip back and forth between old and new. Locals with the Historypin app can walk to where the photos were taken and see that juxtaposition first-hand.
The photos from the Halifax explosion were supplied by the Nova Scotia Archives, which has also used Historypin to post a wide array of content from its collection. They include images related to the sinking of the Titanic, the opening of the causeway to Cape Breton and scenes from daily life a century ago.
Lauren Oostveen of the Nova Scotia Archives says Historypin offered a unique way to connect users with the province’s history, and the provincial government agency was quick to embrace it.
“Archives are almost custom-built for the social-media age in terms of great photos and film and audio content just waiting to be shared,” says Oostveen.
“I think there’s a real significance in trying to reach people where they are and trying to make that transition a little bit easier in making libraries or archives not scary, foreboding places to visit.”
Oostveen says the Nova Scotia Archives was the first such agency in Canada to extensively use Historypin, but archives and libraries elsewhere in the country have also started using the site, along with a similar service called WhatWasThere.
Nick Stanhope, CEO of the company behind Historypin, says about half of the project’s 70,000 photos, videos and audio recordings come from libraries, museums and archives that have either worked directly with his staff or posted content on their own. The rest comes from users adding their own photos from way-back-when.
So far, the smartphone app has been downloaded roughly 350,000 times.
“People really love seeing how things they see every day were 10 or 20 or 100 years ago,” says Stanhope.
“There’s an immediate appeal and fascination to that, and that visual comparison leads people into stories and storytelling.”
Stanhope says his company is a not-for-profit that focuses on social change – or, as he describes it, “behaviour change.” With Historypin, he says the company hopes to inspire communities to explore their past together, connecting younger Internet users with the older generation that may even remember the time in which some of the photos were taken.
“Historypin was looking at what we could create that would provide an opportunity for different generations to have more conversations together about local history, about family history,” Stanhope explains, adding that he hopes the project will continue to grow and evolve.
“I think we’re just scratching the surface for what the app can achieve, and eventually it could become a little time machine in your pocket.”
The same desire to connect with the past has driven a popular Canadian-based blog that borrows the esthetic of placing old photographs in their modern surroundings.
Instead of using Google Maps, Dear Photograph invites users to take their own old photos to the spot where they were originally taken, hold them in their hand, and then take a photo of a photo.
The blog has generated hundreds of thousands of hits and landed its creator, Taylor Jones of Kitchener, Ont., a book deal that has allowed him to leave his job at Research in Motion.
Each photo is accompanied by a caption that begins with, of course: “Dear Photograph…”
Jones acknowledges the concept isn’t new. Photographers have been snapping similar shots for decades, and there have been online groups on websites such as Flickr dedicated to the concept for years.
But he says he thinks his blog’s focus on the stories behind the photos has made it stand out.
“Nostalgia is a big trend right now, and adding the caption brought it to another level,” says Jones.
“I find all the photos are really emotional, they all have a story behind them.”
Jones also says he may have created his blog at just the right time, as websites and smartphone apps, from Historypin to Instragram, focus on either viewing photos from the past or creating images that merely look like they were taken long ago.
“I think it’s really cool that we have all this new technology but we’re making everything super old within it.”