This post is written by Alex Thomas (HIST ’16), Student Assistant in Special Collections and Archives.
The other day I got to time travel.
Refrigerator cars lined up on the tracks. A restaurant advertised to passengers: ALL TRAINS STOP 10 MINUTES. OWL CIGAR – 5¢. The man at the ticket booth leaned up against the wall in the shade.
I saw all of this from the comfort of Special Collections and Archives here at the library. I was working on digitally restoring a panoramic photo taken over a century ago here in San Luis Obispo.
Photographers in early San Luis Obispo
Frank Aston was a well-known photographer in early San Luis Obispo. Some of you may have visited the exhibit of panoramic photos at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art this past March, called SLO Pano. In addition to his own 21st century panoramas, Graphic Communication Professor Brian Lawler also displayed digitally restored historic panoramic views of San Luis Obispo, including several panoramas created by Aston. Aston used a Cirkut camera, a specialized device designed for taking panoramic photos on long sheets of film.
But the panorama I worked on is anonymous. The pictures located in Box 1 Folder 35 of the San Luis Obispo County Regional Photograph Collection (manuscript collection 168), are labeled only “Panoramic View from Terrace Hill, 1907.” (Through consulting with experts in San Luis Obispo history, we determined that the photograph was actually taken in 1906.) Aston signed his work with “Aston Photo” on the bottom corner for the vast majority of his work (you can see examples from his series of Cal Poly photographs). But no such signature appears anywhere on this image.
Piecing together a view of the past
What I’m really working with here is five images, five large and beautiful contact prints made from the original negatives. Whoever this photographer was, he or she hiked up Terrace Hill sometime in 1906, set up the camera, and took two sets of photos. One set of two with a wide lens, one set of three with a longer, more zoomed-in lens. Terrace Hill is in the eastern part of San Luis Obispo, but in the early 1900s you could see the whole city from the top. It actually used to be about forty feet taller before being excavated multiple times in the early 20th century for use as landscaping filler.
These prints remained in pieces for over a hundred years. They were scanned into digital form in 2010 and uploaded to Special Collections’ Flickr page (see them now on our online collections page), but never rejoined until I got to piece them together in April. I used Photoshop to re-align the five images and correct for the lens distortion.
The next step was to remove the borders of each photo. The three smaller prints, which were taken with longer lenses, were sharper because they didn’t have to be stretched as much. I carefully erased the black borders, adjusting the perspective slightly where the image processing algorithm hadn’t worked perfectly. After smoothing out some of the larger scratches, I corrected exposure problems caused by light leaks or printing inconsistencies.
This was a San Luis Obispo from another age. The Wright Brothers took off at Kitty Hawk less than a year before this was taken. The people in this photo rode on carriages pulled by horses. None of their houses had garages. They listened to ragtime music on phonograph records with titles like “Take Me Where There’s A Big Brass Band.” It would be ten years before Cal Poly’s Polygram newspaper would report that the United States had entered the First World War. Cal Poly at the time consisted of just a few buildings in the distance on the extreme right of the image.
And that’s why I call this time travel. There’s something special about seeing such an absurdly high-quality image from so long ago. The hundreds of tiny details make this viewpoint far better than a postcard or framed photo could convey. I urge you to take a look at the full-resolution image and see 1906 with your own eyes.