“A photograph can be kind,” Einstein said. It never changes, even as the people in it grow old and their stories change completely. You can look back on a photo of your mother or father, or the old town where you grew up, and see things as you remember them.
Shorpy is a place where old photographs live on. It started when Ken Booth, who was a journalist at the Orlando Sentinel, and David Hall, an editor at the Washington Post, began devoting their spare time to searching historical news stories to create a website themed “When the Old West was Young.” They used this project, which is still an existing website – www.ghostcowboy.com – to build the blueprint for their next business, which they hoped would become more than a hobby.
They started working with public images from the Library of Congress, “fixing” the photographs that were beautiful, but which they often found too large, sometimes scratched or too dark to make out the detail. They rectified the images to reveal vivid detail and began selling the images over the internet.
This was the hobby that turned into Shorpy, the vintage photo archive which now hosts 4000 photos from the 1800s up until the middle of the 19th century. It also has a contributing comnunity – people who subscribe to the site for free and upload their own photos from the past.
The stunning collection of vintage photographs often contain personal and unique subtleties of the past you just don’t come across when browsing the internet or flipping through an encyclopedia.
And the name for the site? Inspired by Shorpy Higginbotham, a 14 year old ‘greaser’ whose picture Booth and Hall came across when perusing images in the Library of Congress. Shorpy’s job, records indicate, was to carry two heavy pails of grease around the coal mine to grease the tub axles of the trams transporting coal, making sure the carts ran smoothly. He died in a mine accident in 1927 at the age of 31, crushed by a rock. The Shorpy site hence serves as a kind of commemoration, a library of the seemingly “lost tales” of the past that can sometimes only be summoned with an old, rediscovered photograph.