Archives » March 7th, 2006

March 7, 2006

Then and Now

Last year I did a whole article on “Then and Now” books and websites. I had just launched my Virginia City site, and that had planted the seed in my mind that is now finally starting to take shape with Northern Nevada Then And Now over at Around Carson. But I’ve found a couple of new sources since then, inspiration to try to make my own work better.

First, I got the Seattle Then and Now book from Thunder Bay Press. It’s another excellent entry in the series. Thunder Bay really seems to be the leader in this particular niche, with a catalog of 41 Then and Now books at the moment. I’m ordering a couple more soon; they’re really nicely done. The Orange County book in particular I’m really looking forward to, but it isn’t going to be released until August.

But then I heard about Paul Dorpat. Paul Dorpat is a historian/photographer/iconoclast in Seattle that has been doing this Then and Now stuff for something like thirty years. In 1982 he started publishing a weekly Then and Now piece in the Seattle Times, and he’s been at it ever since, with well over 1,000 columns to his name. Here’s his latest. He also published a book, titled Seattle Now and Then, in 1984 that was a collection of his columns. That book contained 112 articles. If an anthology was released today, it would take up an entire shelf in your library. And as if that isn’t enough, he’s also the founder of, an online encyclopedia of Washington State history. There aren’t enough hours in the day to read everything Paul Dorpat has created; I don’t know how he has the time to write it all.

Central School in the 1890s

Paul Dorpat’s influence on me has been to go beyond the photograph, to write more than just captions and to really try to explain what is happening in a picture. You’ll see that in the latest Then and Now I wrote, about the Central School in Carson City. I’m kind of close to the subject, since I actually work in one of the buildings in the “Now” shot. So I couldn’t just dash off three sentences about the picture, I had to go off for paragraphs about the whole history of the block, and who lived in the houses, and what they did. And in this case it was kind of easy because there were prominent people living in these houses, so it was easy to research their lives, and because I’ve been invested in the history of this building for years anyway, so the research has been kind of an ongoing thing with me. But the thing about Paul Dorpat is that he shows every picture he publishes this kind of depth, like he knows the scene intimately, like he was actually there in 1876 or something. Which is impossible on the surface of it, but it’s also kind of impossible to think that he wasn’t there, because how else does he know what he knows? You know?

So that’s what I’ve learned from Dorpat, that you can’t just make the photograph the star and then put some throwaway text underneath it. That’s what the Thunder Bay books do, and you’ll see a lot of negative comments on Amazon for that very reason. But for Dorpat the text is just as important as the picture, because the picture only tells a thousand words, but it takes 1,500 to really explain what’s going on. Somebody’s got to fill in the gaps.

And the last Then and Now I want to bring attention to is one that quite took me by surprise when I found it on the library shelf last week. For this last year I had figured that no one else had done any Then and Now work on Northern Nevada, except for this series I remember in the newspaper from like eight years ago that was a Then and Now of the V&T Railroad. But I didn’t think there were any books until I came across Stopping Time, A Rephotographic Survey of Lake Tahoe. This is a pretty straightforward Then and Now book, published in 1992. While it lacks the rich text that accompanies a Dorpat book, it’s still remarkable for two reasons. First, just the fact that someone actually did one of these books about the area I live in blows me away. It’s kind of thrilling to find, and at the same time it’s a relief that it doesn’t cover Carson City or Reno, because I kind of feel like that’s my book to write. Delusions of self-importance, maybe, but if there’s ever a Then and Now book of Carson City published, it damn well better have my name on the cover. But the other thing about this Lake Tahoe book, and something they continually bring up in the text, is just how hard it is to rephotograph many of these scenes. Lake Tahoe was largely deforested in the late 1800s, with most of its trees going to build houses in Carson City, Reno, and Virginia City, and to shore up the mines of the Comstock. So when the photographers came through in the early 20th century, the hillsides were mostly bare and it was easy to find a good vista point. Now, a hundred years later, the trees have grown back, and those vistas are blocked by thick forest. Many, many pictures in the book have large trees blocking part of the view, or had to be photographed from a rock outcropping a quarter mile away, or have other creative measures applied to compensate for the fact that the Tahoe shoreline is blanketed with trees now, trees that weren’t there a hundred years ago. That’s something I’ll probably run into when I try to rephotograph some old pictures of Lake Tahoe, only it will be even worse because there’s another 14 years of growth on top of everything.

So will I become the Paul Dorpat of Carson City? Doubtful. We’ve already got Guy Rocha, who’s like Dorpat without the pictures. And I’m only planning on living here for a few more years anyway, so I’ve got a limited time to make my mark before I leave. But, since we’re planning on moving to Seattle ourselves soon, maybe I’ll be the one to take over for Paul Dorpat when he retires.

Yeah, more delusions.