It’s hard to look at the people captured in black-and-white snapshots without wondering what their lives were like beyond that single moment.
Take the 1938 image of a smiling boy sitting on a wooden crate behind stalls in the Italian Market: Who was he? Where did he live? Was he happy? Is he still alive?
An estimated two million pictures of people and places, snapped by city photographers since the late 1800s, have been sealed in boxes in the Department of Records at 31st and Market streets.
For the first time in Philly history, the public can see this treasure-trove, and if every picture tells a story, these archives speak volumes.
Eighty photos are on display through Aug. 31 in "Philadelphia Stories: The Building of a Great American City" at the Art Institute of Philadelphia’s gallery, 1622 Chestnut St., while 50,000 and counting appear on a specially created Web site, www.phillyhistory.org, for the city Records Department.
The exhibit’s stroll down memory lane includes about seven to eight shots of South Philadelphia, curator and Art Institute photo history instructor Maria DiElsi Connolly of the 1100 block of Federal Street said. Though only a handful of South Philly photographs appear in the exhibit, there are at least 100 on the Web site.
Art Institute Photography Department Academic Director Robert Crites alerted DiElsi Connolly to the site after he happened upon it, then asked her to put together an exhibit with the City’s blessing. With thousands upon thousands of images to cull from, the photographer knew narrowing things down would be no easy feat. "I decided to tell the story about the building of the city — the workers in the street, working-class people, politicians," she said. "I wanted to tell the story about how the city was built and the building of some other key icons — the Art Museum, City Hall."
About 500 images suited the curator’s vision from which she narrowed the field to 80. Art Institute photography students assisted in the matting and hanging. "This show would not have been possible without their help," DiElsi Connolly said.
Many of the local images on the Web and in the exhibit are a virtual tour of things that aren’t there anymore. A 1919 shot of Atlantic Refining Company Oil Works (now Sunoco) was taken looking west from the Passyunk Avenue Bridge, the Schuylkill shoreline butting up against refinery land with oil tanks; a 1914 photo of the Bryant Coal Co. features several wagons — ready to be hitched up to horses for delivery — bearing the company name outside the facility on a cobblestone street on the northeast corner of 10th Street at Washington Avenue; and taken in 1919 was an image of an Immigrant Station at Pier 53, the exterior of the structure advertising Red Star, American and Hamburg-American lines, which served this Delaware River entry to Philadelphia.
One of the more bizarre shots was taken in the city’s Old City section. Captured for all eternity in 1914 was a Bureau of Health Rat-Receiving Station at Front and Race streets. The photo depicts a horse-drawn carriage dubbed the Rat Patrol Wagon dropping off vermin at a shed with three eager men ready to dispose of the rodents. Another photo from the same facility shows a pile of dead rats on a table.
All Web site images may be searched by neighborhood, address, intersection, place name or keyword and are for sale with proceeds to benefit protection and preservation of the city’s photo archives.
"It’s addicting," DiElsi Connolly said of the site. "You can spend hours just looking."
Robert Cheetham, president/CEO of Avencia Inc., the software firm that developed the site, called the collection "incredible."
"Many of them no humans have seen since the original photographer took the photograph. When we open an envelope of negatives, it’s possible nobody has seen this in over 100 years," he said.
Philadelphia was captured on film at the request of city lawyers as a risk management tool to safeguard against people claiming property damage from public works projects, City of Philadelphia Records Department Commissioner Joan Decker said. "When we looked at some of the photos we thought, these are really remarkable," she said. "What the photographers did was capture a sometimes before, during, [and] after. It was really a record of what the city performed in a certain area. In that sense, it was a risk management tool."
Since much of what was committed to black-and-white film were streetscapes, viewers get to travel back in time to see what their neighborhoods once looked like. For Decker, who was born and raised at Broad Street and Oregon Avenue, several photographs of nothing but dirt roads and fields south of the avenue were quite a shock.
"You can see how a neighborhood evolved or stayed the same. That’s a lot of fun for people," DiElsi Connolly said.
Almost three years ago, the Records Department began to plan the transfer of photos from an outdated software to a new database. Philadelphia-based Avencia, a software development firm that specializes in using geography, including addresses and intersections, to design sites, was hired for the daunting task. During the transfer, Decker suggested the Web site to Cheetham because she knew it would have mass public appeal, she said. History interns and graduates from Temple University and other local schools were hired with four to five people helping in the summer and only two on board during the school year, due to academic commitments.
Each person averages about 200 scanned photos a day. In addition to the 50,000 online, at least 38,000 more have already been scanned and 2,000 are added to the Web a month. "We’re working our way through [all two million] slowly, but surely," Cheetham said. Though the software cost a quarter-of-a-million to develop, Avencia only charged the city $30,000 for the licensing, the CEO said.
The project is twofold, with indexing/scanning as well as preservation. Because many of the photos were not stored well and kept in non-acid-free envelopes, part of the job is to relabel and put them in acid-free envelopes. "This conservation component is also a very important part of the project," Cheetham said.
Decker hopes people delight in the offerings and it brings a newfound appreciation for their city.
"When you look back, you get a real sense of what was accomplished and achieved. I think we have remarkable neighborhoods, beautiful architecture and buildings and a lot of good things to appreciate. I hope they make a personal connection. It’s like traveling through time in our city on the Web."