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How We Did It: Then and Now Photo Project

In 2005, Andrea Curran and I, independently, thought of undertaking this project. Both of us were inspired by the beautiful job the Littleton Historical Society had done in collaboration with Arcadia Publishing and their “Images of America” series, in assembling and commenting on photos from Littleton’s past. We decided to join forces in coming up with a companion work that would, page by page, show the current conditions of the original subjects.

To begin with, I went through the Historical Society’s publication and made a spreadsheet of all the photos including page number, subject, whether we had yet retaken the photo, as well as any pertinent, or impertinent, notes that related to each. More importantly, Andrea and I noted the season of the photo, which in most instances boiled down if there were or weren’t leaves on the trees and whether or not there was snow on the ground. Surprisingly there were only 11 truly winter photos and, as it turned out, about an equal number of photos that had been taken from a boat in one of several of Littleton’s great ponds.

Using the book and spreadsheet we further divided photo subjects by location: the center, the common, the depot, etc. Only after all this was done could we set out systematically to retake the photos. We used a Canon digital camera. The Historical Society’s book of photographs was our Bible and we took it everywhere, including onto the lakes, so that we could try and determine exactly where a photo had been taken.

It was easier with buildings to get a handle on where the original photograph had been taken. We could compare walls and windows and rooflines. Even when the main subject was no longer in existence, it often was possible to figure out the location by using background structures as reference. An example of this would be the Monarch Diner; we knew where it had been, but not from where had the photo been taken. Careful examination showed how much of the old mill showed from behind the neighboring—and still extant— building.

When a photo was a nature scene, it was much more difficult to recreate because in many instances the land had changed so radically from the time of most of the historical photo. In every instance, bushes, trees and entire woods had grown up, often obscuring the original subject and making an exact location difficult or impossible to determine. An example of this would the “Witch’s Elm” behind St. Anne’s church— once all open meadow, it is now mostly white pines and brambles.

Often we would ask people’s help in determining the a location of a photo and sometimes we got very lucky. We had an odyssey in the old mill at the common trying to find one of the weaving rooms; we ended places we never knew existed until, by process of elimination, we arrived at the correct venue. Another example would be the old ice house on Mill Pond, now long gone. We happened to ask Mr. Simmons, who lived on Mill Road, if he could help us. Ironically, and fortunately for us, it turned out he had worked there in the 1940s.

Taking some photos were difficult because I had to stand in traffic while Andrea watched for approaching cars. Others were impossible because of insufficient information, such as with the original Ireland/Thacher store—no one seemed sure exactly where at the depot it had stood.

From time to time we would stop and print the pictures we had taken. This was extremely time consuming because we tried very hard to get the same picture as appeared in the book. This meant changing each digital photo to black and white, adjusting the contrast—generally lightning them—and then cropping the photo—tweaking the centering or increasing the size of the photo. Only then could we print. Printing alone took several hours, and we would while away the time it would take by playing Scrabble— Andrea almost always have the better of me.

We were pretty self-critical in the beginning, rejecting a lot of photos because of poor centering or bad contrast. Several times we would have to return to location and reshoot. As time went on, we got better at taking and printing the photos and, indeed, had become very adept at deciphering from the old photos exactly where they had been taken. A fun example of this would be the old Prouty home on King Street. The caption in the book said that is had been torn down to make way for the post office, but careful examination showed it was still standing, but had been radically altered.

We decided after a while to try and retake some of the photos of people, such as the 19th-century town barber and his wife and the police chief and town doctor from the 1940s. Dr. Peter Johns wanted to be pictured with his computer in the background reflecting the change from large medical references and even larger jars of pills in the original photo. Chief John Kelly also choose a computer, but one that was running software used in photo-ID’ing suspects. Interestingly the software was by a Littleton company.

It took us over a year and half to photograph and print all the subject matter from the Historical Society’s published photos, but it was time well spent; but things were not done at this point.

It was my ardent hope that the Historical Society would make the current-day photos available on their Website. This could have been used first and foremost as a sales tool to jumpstart interest in and sales of the Arcadia book—buy the book and compare photos online to what is there currently. Also, it would be a great reference tool for anyone interested in Littleton’s history, one that could be used all over the world.

To this end, my twin sister, Nancy, stepped in and spent a great amount of time putting the photos onto a CD in Website format. Due to software shortcomings, none of the present-day photos were downloaded into a computer, they only existed in hard-copy form. Most of these hard-copy photos had been manipulated, as indicated above, to change contrast and to crop the photos, however, none of these changes could be recopied onto to digital camera memory cards. What this meant was that my sister had to take the memory cards and cross reference them with the hard-copy, present-day photos and, in almost every case, re-manipulate them to their final form. This provided a much finer result than just scanning the hard-copy photos. She also did a marvelous job setting up the photos on the CD and making them easy and enjoyable to use.

Finally, the Historical Society gave permission for the Now photos to be joined online with the Then photos, rather than depending on people having a copy of the Arcadia book. This led to my sister, Nancy, taking over the lion’s share of the work as she set up the Website that you now enjoy. Not only are the photos presented concurrently, but the site allows you to specific areas, see how they relate on the map, and do it at your own rate of interest and time.

For all three of us, this has been a major labor of love for the Town of Littleton and for the people in it. We hope our efforts will amuse and instruct and that viewers will see and understand how our Town has changed in the past and how it may change in the future.

Andrew Bowers