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The Past Is Not Past in Photographer’s Vision

When Jason Powell walks down the street, he doesn’t just look at what’s right in front of him — the buildings, the people, the landscape. He imagines what it may have looked like 20, 50 or even 100 years ago.

For most people, that’s where the process stops. But not for Powell, creator of the “Looking Into the Past” project. The Leesburg, Va., resident goes through the Library of Congress’ website, searching for images that represent a moment long forgotten.

Then he uses Google Maps to find the spot the photo was taken. More often than not, the area has changed too much to give him an “anchor point,” such as a sidewalk or a lamp post that allows him to frame the photo.

But other times, it works out perfectly. The scenery is similar enough for a viewer to recognize that the old photo juxtaposed with the modern scene is the same place, separated by decades. He holds the picture in front of the lens with his left hand, focuses on the photo and snap! It’s done.

This has resulted in dozens of photos taken in various parts of Washington, Virginia, Maryland and West Virginia. Each reveals a little snippet about the past. One photo shows the Capitol under construction in 1863, right in the middle of the Civil War. Another displays beauty pageant winners standing in front of Union Station in 1921.

One shot reveals a Member of the House practicing hog calling beside the Cannon House Office Building in 1937. Powell located the spot and took the photo after he found the original caption entertaining: “The Capitol Plaza reverberated with sounds of the barnyard today as Rep. Robert L. Mouton, of Louisiana, went into serious training for his coming hog calling contest with Rep. Otha D. Wearin, of Iowa. The contest, which will take place on the Capitol steps sometimes in the new future, is the result of an argument between the two solons as to the abilities of the hog-yodelers from the respective states.”

“It’s all about exploring, both the past and the area,” Powell said.

Powell, 31, isn’t the typical professional photographer. From 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, he’s a network engineer in Northern Virginia. He started practicing photography four years ago as an escape from his day-to-day routine.

“Looking Into the Past” began in February 2009, after Powell came across Michael Hughes’ “Souvenirs” project. Hughes would travel to different locales, taking photos of toys, postcards and other objects in front of the building or landscape that they were based on.

As someone who grew up in the D.C. area, Powell decided to put his own twist on the theme: He would use historic photos instead of objects and shoot those locations.

“I thought I was being super-creative,” Powell said with a laugh. “Apparently, it’s something that’s done fairly often.”

Regardless of whether Powell’s project is a very original idea, it has inspired thousands of other photographers from around the world to take a closer look at their surroundings. Powell started a Flickr group for the project, and as of Monday, 3,339 members had joined and contributed 1,034 photos to the pool.

The pictures in the pool reveal scenes from plazas in Spain to theaters in England.

The influence of Powell’s project has also been kicked up a notch: CNN’s iReport has reached out to its users to contribute “Looking Into the Past” images of the area torn apart during Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s an honor to know that I helped bring that about in a way,” he said.

Next on Powell’s photo to-do list is to take a look at his own personal history. He plans on taking his grandmother’s photographs and searching for the places that she captured.

“It seems really poignant to now tie this back to my life and my family,” he said.

Powell’s photographs can be seen at
jasonepowell.com. The “Looking Into the Past” group can be found at flickr.com/groups/lookingintothepast.

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