Time Lapse: Creating an Online Visual History of the World

Graham Watts, UK

For Torontonians in the late nineteenth century, the world was illustrated mainly with words. Visual images and photographs were rarely available to corroborate international news coming in from the United States, England, Germany, France, China, Africa, and India. This dearth of visual documentation inspired the Toronto Cyclorama Company to construct the ‘strange looking building’ on Front Street (Toronto World, 20 August 1887).

Inside this giant sixteen-sided domed structure, massive paintings of famous battles or geographical wonders were hung on the surrounding walls. The four-hundred-foot-long canvas encircled the spectators, placing them in the midst of the scene. Hailed as an ‘immense success … the best of all cycloramas,’ Toronto’s Cyclorama first opened on 12 September 1887, with The Battle of Sedan (Toronto World, 13 September 1887). The Battle of Gettysburg followed in 1889, to be succeeded four years later by Jerusalem: The Crucifixion. But as the 1890s progressed, the Cyclorama’s eminence as one of the city’s greatest ‘amusements’ began to fade. In 1897, attractions such as Lumiere’s cinematograph had begun to eclipse the Cyclorama’s popularity, and although the Cyclorama proprietors supplemented the paintings with musical acts, concerts, and a carnival-style museum, the crowds were going elsewhere for their entertainment (Toronto Mail and Empire, 7 January 1897). After only eleven years in existence, the Cyclorama
building was seized by the City of Toronto as payment for $2095.86 in tax arrears (Toronto Life, July 1972).

What if we could capture the changes that this incredible building went through – not only in the history books, but visually? Could we use the concept of time-lapse photography to capture historical developments?

I began to wonder about this in 2003 when I published the article on the Toronto Cyclorama building (University of Toronto Quarterly – see reference). My parents recalled seeing the Ford dealership that had moved into the building – but they could not recall seeing the building in its earlier formations. Yet, photographs exist of the building in each of its forms. Then, this past year, I was searching for a Google maps Street view of the building in which I work (4 Daneland Walk, London, UK, N17 9FE). I noticed that on the first click, the building exists, but as I click forward along Ferry Lane (the street bordering the building) – the building itself disappears, and we view the building site (see reference for link).

The online tools are already available in the form of Google maps and the Pictures or Images function. This can be activated in a Google maps search by clicking on Photo Sphere. For instance, when you search for Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, you can see 100 photos taken by active users who have uploaded their pictures.

I have also been working with a California-based company – Carte Design (see reference) – to develop a map of social housing buildings across London. Using this Google-based software, I will begin to draw together historical images surrounding key sites and streetscapes and present this approach and this tool in an interactive presentation at MWF 2014.

By developing a photographic history of key sites and areas such as the Toronto Cyclorama, or Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus in London – and other key streets and sites in major cities around the world we can bring together images and pictures that capture the changing landscape and history of our built environment; we can develop a clear picture of where we came from, and the path that we are taking as we move forward.


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