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Historical Photography

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There’s always something interesting about history—it’s often just a matter of knowing where to find it.

That’s the idea behind Shorpy.com, an eye-popping collection of historical imagery that casts a modern light on an astonishing array of photographs long-hidden in the Library of Congress archives. Named after a 12-year-old coal miner in a picture by the great Lewis Hine, Shorpy.com offers new, high-definition life to old images, restoring the often-breathtaking detail found in the original negatives: the uneven, rutted cobbles on a 1908 Philadelphia street, or the slight hint of alarm in the eye of a test pilot about to fly an aircraft in 1911.

In the last decade, the Library began digitizing specific sets of images in their 13-million-photo strong collection. Soon after, Dave Hall, the co-founder of Shorpy.com, began exploring their archives. Previously a Style editor at the Washington Post, Hall wasn’t especially interested in historical images until late one night, when he discovered several photographs of early 20th-century child laborers. Taken by Lewis Hine on an 8×10 view camera, Hall was amazed at the pictures’ clarity — sparkling with far more detail than a standard 35mm frame. Wondering why he had never before seen such strikingly detailed historical imagery, Hall took it upon himself to post the photos online, in high-resolution — an endeavor simplified by the LOC’s public-domain image rights.

That was in 2007. Now, six years later, Hall has worked his magic on more than 10,000 historic photographs, ranging from early tintypes of Native Americans to medium-format color slides of 1950′s suburbia. Hall mostly sources the site’s new images from the LOC’s raw high-resolution scans, then restores them to their original grandeur.

The physical reality of turn-of-the-century America — its machines, factories, tenements and faces — emerge as if unearthed from a time capsule. Quirky cultural artifacts that have always been with us — locked in photosensitive chemicals in the glass plates and nitrate negatives of the LOC’s Prints & Photographs Division — feel as new and, in many cases, as unexpected, as they were on the day they were shot.

But the primary value of Shorpy.com isn’t just found in the hundreds upon hundreds of restored images of Americana, trains, bathing contests, accidents, war ephemera, portraits of royalty, and the occasional sharecropper. It’s in the details that Hall has meticulously restored within each photograph that the true power of these pictures is found. Every image republished on Shorpy has been color corrected, toned, and sharpened — restoring the brilliant texture and jaw-dropping sharpness found in the original negatives and glass plates. These negatives have a tremendous amount of detail, Hall explains, but the Library of Congress’ scans often don’t reflect this. The details exist in the original negatives, but are frequently hidden in blown-out highlights and muddied shadows. So, with each image, Hall balances the exposure, correcting for the wear of time upon negatives that record a narrow but deep slice of American history.

Hall doesn’t modify the content of the images, either — all of his adjustments are carefully limited to the standards of which the original photographers would likely pursue. He is, in effect, a master digital restorer, working as a darkroom printer of the time period would have done while preparing the images for public exhibition.

Most — if not all — of these pictures have never before been displayed with such clarity, and certainly have never been enjoyed, by an audience as vast as the web. This is where Shorpy’s strength as a historical and cultural tool comes into its own. Images that were once considered only as objects of history are made immediate and relevant once again, in part because we’re able to see that life in the past isn’t quite as different from our world as we perhaps imagined it to be. Shorpy lets us see in detail the faces of the past — and they look, in essence, exactly like the faces we’d see today on any American street.

Perhaps even more amazing than the photos themselves, however, are the comments on the site, often made anonymously, that help to flesh out the huge story behind the photos — and, in a sense, behind the Library of Congress itself. Users of the site closely inspect the images, pointing out a range of details — everything from specific styles of clothing to the facial expressions of passersby reflected in store windows.

For history to be relevant, it has to not only be accessible, but detailed enough that it feels alive. By embracing the immeasurable value of America’s vast, public photo library, Shorpy has found an elegant way to engage a generation for whom, and on whom, the power and personality of history is often lost.

Vaughn Wallace is the producer of LightBox. Follow him on Twitter @vaughnwallace.

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Technology has given us an incredibly wide-ranging view of modern presidents; chief White House photographer Pete Souza’s images of Barack Obama show him in countless locations and situations, from meetings in the Oval Office to candid shots of the president eating ice cream with his daughters on vacation.

The photo archive of Abraham Lincoln, the subject of this week’s cover story, is a much smaller set due to the technological limitations of the time; most of the existing photographs of the 16th president are posed portraits, the majority of which only show Lincoln from the chest up—and all are black-and-white.

But TIME commissioned Sanna Dullaway to create a more vibrant document of Lincoln through a series of colorized photographs produced in Photoshop. After removing spots, dust and scratches from archival Lincoln photographs, Dullaway digitally colorizes the files to produce realistic and modern versions of the portraits, which look like they could have been made today.

The 22-year-old Swedish artist began colorizing images in January 2011, when she was listening to the debut album by rock band Rage Against the Machine. The self-titled album’s cover art is a black-and-white picture of a self-immolating monk taken by AP photographer Malcolm Browne. “I thought the normally fiery flames looked so dull in black and white, so I…looked for a way to make them come alive,” she says. Dullaway colorized the flames, and eventually, the entire picture. She then posted the image on Reddit, and it instantly went viral.

Since that first experiment, Dullaway has continued to colorize a wide range of historical figures, including Albert Einstein, Che Guevara and Teddy Roosevelt, each of which has generated viral buzz online. She’s also used the approach on a number of iconic photographs, such as Eddie Adams’ harrowing image of a Vietnam police officer the moment before he’s about to execute a Vietcong prisoner. In each of these renderings, Dullaway’s use of color is subtle and sophisticated—yielding images that maintain the photographic integrity of their originals, while presenting a look at how these photographs may have come out had color photography existed at the time. That nuanced ability to handle color runs in the family; Dullaway’s father is painter.

The images take anywhere from 40 minutes to three hours to produce, and for the young artist, it’s a way of bringing a contemporary perspective to older works. “History has always been black and white to me, from the World War I soldiers to the 1800s, when ladies wore grand but colorless dresses,” Dullaway says. “By colorizing, I watch the photos come alive, and suddenly the people feel more real and history becomes more tangible.”

Lincoln is at the heart of her next project, a book of Civil War images rendered in color. “I felt like it was a good place to start because the war is well documented in the Library of Congress and started roughly around the same time the camera was first used commercially,” Dullaway says. “And a war offers to chance to cover many subjects at once, and present the events of that time as our eyes would see it today—in color.”

Sanna Dullaway is a photo editor based in Sweden. See more of her work here.

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Like the work of most great artists, the best of Walker Evans’ pictures are marvels of contradiction. Or, rather, they acquire their power through the contradictions they deftly reconcile. One especially striking example: a photograph from 1930 (slide 11 in this gallery) comprised of elements so incongruous that, taken together, they really should not bear scrutiny for more than a few moments before the viewer, shrugging indifferently, moves on.

But through Evans’ uncanny visual alchemy, that particular photograph’s disparate graphic elements—family photos; a half-hidden American flag; dried flowers; a truly hideous plant growing with almost unseemly vitality from a battered wooden bucket—appear not only to belong together, but to need one another in order to make sense.

MOMA

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As seemingly chaotic and even unappealing as the image might feel at first glance, those wildly variant aspects of the photo—the flag, the plant, the faces—somehow cohere into something far more than the sum of their parts. Despite its initially jarring message, “Interior Detail of Portuguese House” does not, in fact, spurn scrutiny—it commands, and rewards, scrutiny. And what’s more amazing is that, after a time, the photograph appears to be gazing back. It is the viewer, and not the picture, that is the subject of an unblinking inquiry—and it’s unsettling.

But if Evans’ pictures are evidence of a rare facility for both creating and resolving contradictions, his career might be seen as his masterpiece. A fierce, determined artist, Walker Evans was for decades on staff at Time Inc.—a salaried editor at, of all places, Fortune magazine from the 1940s until the mid-1960s. That the man behind one of the seminal photographic efforts of the 20th century—the 1938 masterwork, American Photographs—went to the office each day, like any other nine-to-fiver, might astonish those photography buffs who have always, understandably, imagined Evans as nothing if not an irresistible creative force.

And yet, here again, Evans’ intrinsic contradictions—managed as Rodin might handle a lump of clay, or Koufax a curveball—are ultimately resolved in the photographs, singly and collectively, that he produced. He is both iconoclast and working stiff; company man and virtuoso.

This year marks the 75th anniversary edition of American Photographs, reissued by the Museum of Modern Art in an edition that recaptures, for the first time since its original release, what might be called the book’s radical purity. (The book itself, as a physical object, is a pleasure to hold; the duotone plates are gorgeous and crisp, and the size of this edition—an at-once solid and easily handled 7.75″ x 8.75″ hardcover—does justice to the serious, unfussy, thrilling nature of the work inside.)

As in the first edition, Evans’ pictures in the MoMa release appear only on the right-hand side as one turns each page, the utterly blank page on the left—without even a caption to distract the eye—adjuring one to look, to really look, at each picture, one after the other. And as the pages (slowly, slowly) turn, Evans’ accomplishment grows more evident, more impressive, more engaging.

The standard line on Evans is that no one—with a camera or a paintbrush—had ever captured America in quite the clear-eyed, unsentimental, honest  way that he did. But that patently true declaration still fails to encompass the scale and the sustained excellence of his achievement. In American Photographs, in images made during the Great Depression in places as divergent as Pennsylvania, Alabama, New York City and Havana, Cuba, Evans did not hold a mirror up to his country and his time: no mirror ever made, after all, could so clearly reflect what he saw, and what he wanted others to see.

Instead, each and every one of Evans’ pictures provides a window—or an unadorned window frame—from which even the glass has been removed, and through which we witness a scene of such clarity and immediacy that our own contemporary surroundings, if only for a moment, seem somehow less freighted with history. Less grounded. Less real.

The details of a house in Maine (slide 17)—the surprisingly jaunty, seemingly tilted windows; the elegant shapes, graceful patterns and, above all, the textures that give the structure its personality—are not merely the handiwork of people who obviously cared about their hard work; the details of the house are reminders of, and tributes to, the enduring value of hard work and the attention to craft.

The stance, the clothing and the unreadable expression on the face of a lean, dapper citizen of Havana in 1932 (slide 9) are not merely separate elements of a snapshot: like the details of a portrait by an Old Master, they combine to suggest a time, a place and an attitude (defiant, dignified) that have survived the passing decades intact—even if, by now, the man himself must be long dead.

These pictures, and the other pictures in American Photographs, are intensely daring precisely because the man who made them worked so hard to hide—to efface—the effort that went into creating them. Each image stands on its own, while at the same time each picture references the photograph that comes before, and the photograph that follows. It is a straightforward book that stirs complex emotions. It is a treasure.

‘Walker Evans: American Photographs (Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Edition)’ is available through the Museum of Modern Art.

Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com.

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