Inspiring a Project Today by Referencing Images from the Past

I was doomscrolling in the digital wasteland of 2023 Twitter and saw a photographer talking about putting together his very first project.  He was lamenting how to begin.

Most of us start photography by just shooting images here, images there.  The further we get into the practice, beyond Instagram, past the state fair contests, we find that the photographic world, be it – editorial, commercial or artistic revolves not around single images but instead bodies of work involving many images captured within some similar context or style.  The most common body of work is the humble photography project.

But where to start?

Often we create our first projects without realizing that we already have done so.  A retrospective review of our galleries observing commonalities is a good way to begin a collection of images that can be completed or rounded out going forward.  But what about purposeful efforts when the slate is empty?

For the most part we got into photography to make images, not to document history or tell stories.  The language and grammar to expand our purpose is strange to us.  We have trouble identifying topics or forming good questions from scratch.

An approach is to start from a fixed point.  An image from the past can be a great place to begin.  The image can be one from a book, a newspaper, a well-known painting or photograph or perhaps an image from your own photographic youth.  From there you can use that image to direct your creation of new images with the goal to compare, contrast, juxtapose or find common ground between then and now.  As we do this we learn the process of telling a story with camera in hand.

A young colleague of mine, Alexander Toms took this approach recently.  On spring break from Art School he drove 40 hours from Indianapolis out to Lone Pine California on a quest to make work.  His inspiration was the iconic image by Ansel Adams – “Winter Sunrise – Sierra Nevada”.  Armed with 12 sheets of 4 by 5 film, he made 6 images, at varying stages of sunrise on two separate days.  In addition to his large format gear, he also took with him a 35mm camera, and rolls of color film to document the process, the broader setting and the people he met along the way.

Alexander’s finished product

Unfortunately, not all of us are in our early 20’s with the freedom that accompanies the age.  If we are older, have been taking photographs for years, an alternative is to mine our own images and memories for a starting point of interest.  Now … the urge may be strong here… but… #Youmightbeaboomerif you take the opportunity to document how something has changed to your disliking.  I am going to illustrate a different approach.  (Yeah – I know, big stupid hashtags that no one actually ever searches on is a boomer thing too….)

A few years ago, I was scanning some of the images I took back in the day when I was Alexander’s age.  I came across some images of the Indianapolis central canal.  I knew immediately I had found a project that I should work on.  I took weekly walks at the canal in a rotation of places I regularly walked, so unlike Lone Pine, California – it wasn’t out of the way for me.  Most days I had my digital Pen F with me but going forward I would frequently take a film camera to align with the image media of the past, focus less on the people and more on the place.

The Indianapolis Central Canal traces its history to a really long time ago (in American terms), being part of a grand plan to span the newly formed state with a series of roads and canals crisscrossing the state connecting distant points.  The canal would lead Northeast from Indianapolis and tie into the Maumee river basin near Fort Wayne, leading to Lake Erie and the St Lawrence riverway.  It would also lead Southwest towards the Wabash river leading to the Ohio and ultimately the Mississippi river.  Indianapolis has always nicknamed itself the cross roads of America.  That urge began early.

They began with the route NE out of Indianapolis.  About eight miles in they realized that digging canals was hard and said “screw this, let’s focus on the roads instead”.  A bold bit of visionary leadership that foresaw the invention of the internal combustion engine and the automotive age 80 years into the future.

What was completed was an 8 mile stretch that connected the White River North of Indy (I’m getting tired of typing Indianapolis) again with the White River on the west side of Indy.  It managed to bypass the shallow portions with rapids in between while at the same time passing over Fall Creek with an aqueduct.

While the original purpose was abandoned, it found use when the Indianapolis Water Company decided to use it as the source of water for the city.  Since it started north of the city before people began doing nasty things in the river, it was a better source than the river itself.  They built the cities first pumping station where it flowed back into the river.  Clean water drawn from the canal, nasty water dumped into the river.  It served this purpose for several decades even as Indy grew and the water company built new pumping stations.

As Indy entered the second half of the 20th century, the northern section of the canal flowed through newly built residential areas in Broad Ripple.  It was and remains a bucolic natural feature.  Towards the center of town as it ran through rougher areas, it became a convenient place to dump a body if you had managed to acquire one through some sort of unfortunate escapade.

In the late 60’s the canal would be changed forever.  Part of its route was to be used for the construction of I-65 that ran from Chicago to Atlanta and the deep American South (remember that Crossroads of America idea?).  About a mile and a half was filled in, with a highway built on top.  The water was routed underground to the river further north of the original confluence.  What was left south of the interstate was drained, creating a giant empty ditch running west of downtown, just 4 blocks from the State Capital.  In a dry season it was a great place to prospect with a metal detector, after a rainy spell it was a great place to grow mosquitoes.

With a downtown finding itself emptied for the suburbs, Indy realized it needed to re-imagine its future.  As part of a series of broad ranging projects named the White River State Park project, the state and the city included the canal in its plans.  Potentially using the Riverwalk in San Antonio as an inspiration, the city envisioned an urban space that mixed commercial, residential and entertainment functions together.  The Canal Walk was born.

Construction and completion was a 15 year project.  Beginning at the river confluence near the state house and with ambitions of running north to the interstate that split it in two.  In the late 80’s, about a third of the way through the canal rebuild, I showed up.  Not yet finding a major or a purpose yet, I skipped a lot of university classes and only having a part time job cashiering at a drug store, I had a lot of time on my hands and a camera to fill them.

The re-envisioned canal had crept up and out of the river and stopped just north of Michigan street.  Sandbags separated the reclaimed from the forgotten and ignored.  It had about three quarters of a mile to go.

New development went with it.  The first of four Museums lining its banks had been built and opened, the state office complex relocated its cafeteria and back porch on the south bank.  Finally, the first residential project was well underway.

An Urban Wasteland
Ken and I out prospecting for desolate compositions
A new vision unfolding
Transformation Underway

My pictures from this time were likely shot on Kodak Plus X.  I hated grain and avoided Tri-X for that reason.  I either used my Ricoh KR-30 SP Program or my Petri 35 when I shot.  Images were developed and printed in a home darkroom.  I ran across these about three years ago shortly after picking up a film camera again and buying my (crappy) film scanner.  I walked the now finished canal weekly so the images of the time were an eye opener for me.  How far things had come.  A project was born.  My walks would now take on a different purpose.

The new images were made with either the Petri 35 from back in the day or more recently with the Olympus OM-2n that replaced it.  A 50mm 2.0 is the lens I always use here.  Film used is really a mixed bag.  I often do new emulsion trials on these walks so these images are likely to have been made using anything from Ilford Delta 100 or HP5 to Lomography Pottsdam 100 or Babylon 13.  Everything is still scanned with the same crappy scanner.

For the most part I will let the new images tell the story of what the canal has become.  It’s a mixing point for the city.  In the northern reaches, the young professionals whose condo and apartment balconies overlook the canal use it as an exercise area.  Indiana University – Indianapolis is just two blocks away, students come to relax and hang out.  The university’s yearly fall celebration, The Regatta, is held here.  From the near west side, Hispanic families come to spend the day with small children.  Older teens come to have their quinceanera pictures taken on one of the Venice inspired bridges (anyone who witnesses the joy and optimism found in these celebrations and still thinks America is doomed as a result can go to ….).  A little later in life, the same groups return for their wedding pictures.  Tourists are directed to the four museums and the various boat and bicycle rental stands down by the museums on the south end.

A familiar facade, 35 years removed.
Bridges being built
Neighbors across the way
Larger developments on the North end
Memories of the past
In the heart of the city
A quiet place
A place to relax
A place to celebrate!
A place to watch the world go by
Boats! We got Boats!
Funny boats….
Melodic boats…
Lots of boats!
Sailing south into museum row
First up the Indiana Historical Society
The terrace of the Eiteljorg next door to the Indiana State Museum
A celebration of limestone, glass and other such things found in Indiana
The hidden rotunda that is part of the NCAA HQ and Hall of Champions

About once a week I show up, camera in hand to get steps under my feet and capture a little bit of life as I pass through it.  I find myself amazed by what has become of the place where Ken Yerian and I used to roam through abandoned industrial buildings looking for, hopefully, empty crack houses to photograph.

I have photographs from both eras and in doing so, have fulfilled one of the central roles and purposes of the art we practice.

From a tunnel beneath the Interstate, a waterfall feeds the North End
To the south, in front of the NCAA Hall of Champions, where another fall empties the canal back into the White River
New life reclaimed from an old space

You can find me, my personal work on my Site.

I am also a contributing writer at the Live View publication on Medium.

I also am the founder of F2.8Press, Publishers of Undiscovered Photography.  We have an open call for submissions for our Zine:  “Archive”.  Check us out on Twitter!

When I am not wandering aimlessly  with a camera, I am a Lecturer of Economics and Statistics at Butler University.

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12 thoughts on “Inspiring a Project Today by Referencing Images from the Past”

  1. Really nice photography and a compelling story. It’s great when cities recognize and make the most of adapting what’s there.
    But one minor complaint. I live in Birmingham Alabama and I-65 runs directly though our city, not Atlanta which is 145 miles East. Atlanta has I75. Interstate 65 is one of the great snowbird paths to the beaches four hours south of my beautiful city for those escaping winter in your region.

    1. I’ve been to both Birmingham and Atlanta – I really should know better! Apologies.

      Instead of making an edit to something live – I will let your comment be the correction and this my mea culpa.

      Also – I loved shooting at the Sloss Furnaces several years ago, I need to do that again someday. Your city is a pleasant little secret.

      1. Thanks John, Our city is always a surprise. It’s a foodie Mecca and a beautiful place. It’s past has, with good reason, colored peoples opinion of the city. But it’s overcome more than most cities could hope. The recent designation of a Birmingham Civil Rights National Memorial has had a major impact on tourism and downtown is a lively vibrant place with the more recent RailRoad Park and the new BallPark and Negro league Museum. I moved here in the late 80’s to work for a big regional magazine and have been here to watch the transformation. It’s now a city for young professionals with great livability. If you come to see Sloss again let me know.

        As for projects I was very fortunate a few years back to be the primary photographer for the US Civil Rights Trail. After documenting the sites in Alabama with an art director we then traveled across the region documenting sites where history happened. On that long trip we hit 10 states in 12 days and photographed some 61 sites going from Birmingham to New Orleans to various cities in Mississippi and then to Little Rock, Topeka, grabbed a flight to DC and then from there to Virginia, North and then South Carolina, Georgia and then back to Memphis. For many sites we took historic photos with us and recreated the exact scene today. It was a fascinating and exciting challenge to try to place my camera in the exact same space as a news photographer in the 50’s or 60’s with the same angle. it made for some great before and after additions to the website and book. All that was 2016-18. Last fall we started documenting a few new locations and I hope we do more soon. I’ll probably be the only person who has been to every site on the trail. Talk about an education! https://civilrightstrail.com

  2. Reyazul Haque

    Seeing a place changing and adapting through your photos across time is fascinating. Wonderful photos, and such a nice idea. Thank you so much for the inspiration.

  3. John, I got to experience something few young upstarts are fortunate enough to experience. At the ripe old age of 22 I was given the opportunity to be a print finisher for a large pro lab in Dallas, Texas. The lab, Meisel Photochrome, handled work for photographers from all over the U.S. and Europe.

    One photographer in particular, Bank Langmore, had just recently completed a personal photo project that spanned three years documenting the American range riding cowboy of the 1970’s. He went to ranches of 100,000 acres or more that still did everything from horseback, no mechanization. The Bell Ranch, ZX Ranch and the Padlock Ranch to name just a few. Bank went as a working cowboy and he had special camera holsters, crafted by a leather-smith, so that he always had quick access to his equipment. He shot over 20,000 frames of film, most b&w, but also color on Kodachrome. He produced a book, The Cowboy, that contains a small sampling of his beautiful work. His grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in Cuba and listening to his stories as a child planted a desire to someday document this special group of rugged individuals.

    I got to help produce a special one-of-a-kind hand bound leather book of some of these images and work directly with Bank. This introduction to Bank eventually led me to quit the lab and go to work for him. Besides producing several large exhibits I also got to be his photo assistant as he started a new three year project, in 1980, of documenting San Antonio and the Hill Country region of Texas.

    My life was never the same after this. I recently completed my first solo exhibit of one of my own personal projects. His inspiration and mentoring all those years ago became the catalyst that launched me on a lifetime of documenting the world around me. I’ve also devoted myself to helping photographers produce their own personal works. In 2015 I helped in the production of a father/son exhibit that was on display for a time at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. http://artemis.austincollege.edu/acad/art/ExhibitArchive/15-16Exhibits/Cowboy-Generations/photos.html

    Why relate all this? Hopefully, as people read your story and this one, it will inspire them to undertake their own personal photo project. The rewards are many (rarely financial) and you just never know where it will lead you.

    Best to you in your ongoing quest and thanks for an inspiring story.

    1. Bill, Thanks for the kind words and terrific story. I started assembling my first “Purposeful” project or body of work about three years ago and it has really changed how approach the entire field.
      We primarily think of photography as visual art but there is a strong case to be made for its consideration as visual literature as well. The change in direction and purpose of the Photobook compelling evidence of this.

      1. I really like the idea of photography being considered visual literature. This gives each viewer the chance to write their own story as they view different photographic works. I believe it’s these personal stories that can give an image the ability to transcend time and place and inspire or move people even decades later.

        People talk about photographs that tell a story but I believe that is only one aspect of an image. Photographs that inspire people to tell their own story and experiences is just as important.

  4. Interesting story and fine images. They reminded me of what was done with a flood control project in Napa, CA. The Napa River (slough) used to flood in winters with heavy rains. The city built bulwarks and downstream, created wetlands to dissipate the floods. Those bulwarks were something more–they were the basis of a thriving development containing restaurants, residential buildings and retail stores. An outdoor performance space and walking trials grace the riverbed during the dry season. The City of Napa transformed itself from a sleepy nowhere into a destination. Public works with vision. BTW, I was in Indianapolis for a few days once and was surprised to find two Trader Joes within a couple of miles of each other; probably because of the several colleges in the city. I loved the building with a dinosaur breaking through an exterior wall.

    1. Thanks Gary. The building with the Dinosaurs you mention is the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. There is an interesting story that goes with that part of the museum and the Dinosaurs. Originally that part of the museum was built as a Cinedome theater that displayed a type of movie that was shot with 360 degree lines of sight. At the same time the Indiana State Museum built the first IMAX formatted theater in the city. Over time, more films were made in the IMAX format and the theater at the Children’s lacked content to present. It was closed as a theater and re-imagined as a “Dinosphere” exhibit and learning space. I believe the museum is still the largest museum in the world dedicated to children’s programming.

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