Tombstone is a little town in Arizona that is steeped in history. There have been scores of television shows that reference the town’s infamous shootout at the O.K. Corral with the Earps on one side and the Clantons and McLaurys on the other.
Today, the dusty little town does its best to preserve its history, taking on the characteristics of a living museum. Many of the buildings that were rebuilt after several fires in the 1880s swept through the town are still standing today.
Most people who visit appreciate the historical context: Walking around Tombstone means walking in the same footsteps of famous and infamous people out of history. But to truly appreciate the historic context of the town, photography can feel like time travel.
How to bring history to life with a simple photographic technique.
I was admittedly lucky during my last visit to Tombstone. I took two photos — one of the Tombstone Courthouse (Cochise County Courthouse) and one looking south on East Allen Street — to include in a family photo book of our vacation.
I didn’t think much of the photos at the time. But several months later, when I was researching some history to include as part of the book, I stumbled across two historic photos taken from nearly the same vantage point that I took mine.
On nothing more than a hunch, I opened the historic and modern photographs in Photoshop. While they weren’t perfectly matched, they were close — so close that I could overlay one photo on top of the other and erase portions of the top photo to create an out-of-time effect.
I’m including a simplified three-step process that can be used as a guide to make overlapping time photos. It’s much easier than you think.
1. Open both photos in Photoshop. Size, crop, and adjust them so that they are approximately the same size.
2. Set the more recent photo as the background, and then drag the historic photo as a new layer. (Briefly adjust the occupancy of the top layer to ensure they are aligned.)
3. Slowly erase portions of the historic photo to reveal the recent photo as the background.
Naturally, it is always a good idea to save multiple versions of the work as you proceed. There were several occasions when I decided to change which portions of the historic photo I wanted to keep and which portions I wanted to omit. Sometimes you won’t know until you do it.
How to apply the photographic technique for family photos.
As mentioned, I was especially lucky that I happened to take a few shots that could be aligned with historic photos in the public domain. However, with a little planning and foresight, using this technique for family photos could forever change your perspective.
Any time you know you are going to visit an historic location, especially one that is important to your family, take a look at your old albums, photo collections, or even public domain archives online. While you can use any old photo as a foundation, I’ve found three kinds of photos that work best.
Pick a black and white or sepia toned photo (or plan to remove the color later) with a visible prominent landmark. Depending on the effect you want to achieve, pick photos that don’t include people or those that include people who don’t fill the entire frame. The reason is simple. It’s the architecture and landscape that will help ground your photos.
These two types of photos will allow you to match two landscapes (like I did in Tombstone), bring ancestors into the present, or place living relatives into the past. All you have to do, once you have the historic photo as your guide, is snap a new photo from a similar vantage point.
It doesn’t have to be perfect; the effect is still worth it. There really isn’t a better way to illustrate the connection between the past and the present than fusing two photographs together. However, if you aren’t comfortable working with a program like Photoshop, you can still place the two photographs side by side to reflect the connection.
Richard Becker is the CTO of Celebrating Legacy and president of Copywrite, Ink. He is a creative strategist and writer who has made dozens of contributions to companies, government agencies, and communities for more than two decades. His byline has also appeared in the Denver Post, Los Angeles Times, and several publications by Simon & Schuster, among others.