Dear Photograph started off as a nice nostalgic blog with six pictures of old family snaps lined up in their original setting. Then it went viral
Last May, Taylor Jones was sitting with his family in Ontario when his mother pulled out an old photo album. Among the hundreds of shots was one of Jones’s younger brother at his third birthday party. “He was sitting in front of his Winnie-the-Pooh birthday cake,” Jones recalls. “It was weird – because my brother was there, in the exact spot he was sitting in in the photograph.”
Jones grabbed his camera and took a shot of the old photograph lined up to match its original location. He posted it and six others on a blog. Within days, the blog, which he later named Dear Photograph, had gone viral. Today, eight months on, Dear Photograph has had 10m hits, and been named one of Time magazine’s 10 best sites. It now gets 20,000 hits a day.
The success has enabled Jones to leave his job in Ontario with RIM, makers of BlackBerrys, where he worked as a social media specialist. He recently spent time in LA, finishing a book inspired by Dear Photograph that will feature stories to go with some shots. He has also met film and TV executives to discuss projects based on the site such as a screenplay a friend wrote about using photographs to travel into the past.
Like the resurgence of Super 8 and the rebirth of the Polaroid instant camera, the success of Dear Photograph has its roots in our nostalgia for pre-digital technology: there is a crudeness to holding a picture in one hand and photographing it with the other, yet the final image has a potency that cannot be bestowed by Photoshop.
The site receives around 20 entries a day but only one is uploaded. “The photo is usually chosen depending on [what’s] going on around the world,” says Jones. During the holiday season, he adds, they might “post holiday photos, but it sometimes depends just on how I’m feeling. If I’m feeling great, I’m going to post a fun photo.”
Scrolling through the 200 or so images currently on the site, it quickly becomes clear how much resonance the accompanying texts provide. The big themes are longing and regret. Time and again, a photograph will radiate a sadness about what has been lost: children missing their parents, parents missing their childhood.
“It’s hard to see the magic through grownup glasses,” runs one entry, with a shot of children in Halloween costumes. Another shows two children standing in a field of long grass, the present-day shot revealing that it has been shorn. “How I long for the days of make-believe adventures in the forest,” reads the caption. “Now it’s just a lawn that needs mowing.” The power comes from what’s been lost in the space between the old photo and the new. A proud mother holds her baby son in front of a white clapboard house. “It’s nice to know that we loved each other once upon a time,” reads the text.
The basic concept behind Dear Photograph is not, Jones acknowledges, all that original: sleeveface.com, (2) Irina Werning’s Back to the Future series, and Ze Frank’s Young Me, Now Me have explored similar territory, often revealing the passage of time by replicating old photographs using the subjects as they are today. But Jones’s innovation was to allow the space to seem to talk to the photograph.
There is an irony, Jones admits, in a 22-year-old creating a site so themed around nostalgia for a vanished past. “It is a little crazy,” he says, “but seeing all these photographs, and reading the stories, has given me a perspective on life. My parents are still around and I have grown a lot closer to them.” Jones has resisted taking advertising, which could have made him a substantial sum; the book deal with HarperCollins has allowed him to remain financially stable. “The website is for the photographs,” he says. “I don’t want anything that takes the focus away from them.”