Mapping Vintage Photographs

I have a particular interest in visual tools that help interpret historic photos, and what better a way to do this than maps?

So here is a start at pulling together all the services I know that achieve this, to one extent or another.  Any additional suggestions are always welcome. Equally, if anyone representing the sites featured wants to comment or send corrections then I’m happy to amend things.  Note this is not intended to be a critical review of one against another, just a summary of what is out there.

See also my summary of Mobile apps for vintage photographs (previously a section of this page)

Geotagged Photographs on Flickr

Screengrab from Flickr

Screengrab from Flickr

Flickr claim that they are “almost certainly the best online photo management and sharing application in the world” – a huge claim, but one as an avid user I’d go along with.  But beyond management and sharing, Flickr has two extra bits that I love most: the first is the community, the second is the way that you can search, add value to, extract, and display images that have been uploaded by anyone, anywhere.

The best example of this is The Commons but although many of the images are geotagged (17,210 as at 23 November 2011) there’s no way, unless anyone wants to correct me, of displaying a single map of them.  [Update: I’ve now developed some simple mapping tools to allow you to display Commons images on Google Earth and in a mobile app] But all is not lost, you can display a map of geotagged photos for any individual user and most notably any Flickr group.

Examples of maps for Flickr Commons institutions

(For all these Flickr maps click on the ‘interesting’ link at the bottom to see the best and widest spread of images)

Australian War Memorial
US National Archives

National Library of Ireland

I’ve selected some of the best – others are very poor at geotagging their Flickr images!  In total there are currently 56 Flickr Commons institutions.

Examples of maps of for private users with large geotagged collections

painting in light

whatsthatpicture (sorry, rather gratuitous self-promotion!)

Examples of maps for vintage photograph themed groups

Geotagged: Vintage Photographs (a group I set up specifically to try to aggregate as many geotagged vintage images in one place)
Vintage Family
Vintage Kids
Period Photographs of Transportation (pre-1980)
Old Black & White Cycling Photos

World War II Vintage Photos

Photographs of the Civil War

For an extensive list of over 150 vintage photo related Flickr groups see my Vintage Photographs (pre-1945) [Directory].  Scroll down to the list, click on any group name and then the map link.

Mapping using Google Maps and Google Street View

Screengrab of Historypin website

Screengrab of Historypin website


In their own words, “Historypin is a way for millions of people to come together, from across different generations, cultures and places, to share small glimpses of the past and to build up the huge story of human history.

Since its relaunch earlier in 2011 it appears to have gone from strength to strength.  This feature packed site contains an ever growing collection of thousands of images from both private and institutional collections.  One of the unique features (as far as I am aware) is the ability to create collections and tours, like this tour I made of vintage images of Kew Gardens.

Screengrab of What Was There website

Screengrab of What Was There website

What Was There

What Was There is another slickly presented site allowing users to upload their images and then place them on Google Maps and Google Street View. Of all the sites I find it the easiest to browse around, even if it lacks one or two features (for example the ability to comment on photos).

Screengrab of Sepia Town website

Screengrab of Sepia Town website

Sepia Town

This is a site that I confess I’ve long been aware of but have not explored as much as I should.  My recollection is that it started off with a small number of set locations rather than inviting submissions from across the globe, but that appears to have changed now.  And most notably, having just tried a few locations, they seem to have imported a huge number of public domain images from organisations such as those participating in Flickr Commons and from Wikimedia Commons.  Unlike the above two sites it doesn’t have ‘then and now’ style Street View overlays but instead relies on displaying the image in one panel and having the option of the modern day view displayed to the right.  I’m not sure that’s such a bad thing, and the overall simplicity of the site is part of its appeal.


Screengrab of Histografica website

Screengrab of Histografica website

It’s worth mentioning a few other names here that people may have come across.

Look Back Maps
This site was set up by Jon Voss who has now joined with Historypin –

A site I’m not too familiar with, it has a simpler interface (once you get used to it) and seemingly a more restricted set of images, many of them imported from public sources.

Flickr Commons mash-ups
Probably the earliest example I recall seeing of delivering this concept.  Back in 2008 Australian Paul Hagon took images in Flickr Commons from Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum and placed them side-by-side with modern day Street View locations – link 1.  He has since done several more, including some very clever stuff that picks New York street addresses from image descriptions and uses Google Maps to translate these into geotags – link 2.

What isn’t mapped!

Whilst all the above sites are really pushing forward the boundaries in this area, my impatience makes me very frustrated when I see huge collections that simply can’t be accessed in this way.  This might be Flickr Commons collections that have no geotagging, or whole sites with really great but geographically invisible images . Perhaps the most frustrating example is the Francis Frith website, where you can easily search for a specific location (including disambiguation of duplicate names) yet there is simply no way to directly extract mappable data.  Likewise the English Heritage Archives – their search form encourages you to search by location and provides access to hundreds of thousands of records, and each record even has a description of the location, but nothing that takes that extra step to provide this as geodata.


I could go on for hours about all the possibilities I see in this area.  Most fundamentally though I think there are huge opportunities to break down some of the barriers – tools to make it easier for anyone to share and geolocate images, services (such as open data) that allow existing collections to be integrated by clever people in clever ways, and techniques that harness the collective power of the ‘crowd’ to add value to images.  This includes getting greater linkage between some of the sites listed above – for example I have over 1,000 geotagged images on Flickr, yet to display them in Historypin I would have to re-upload them and re-tag them from fresh, one by one, something I simply don’t have the time or inclination to do.  Yet a simple technical integration should be relatively straightforward.

More than anything though I’d encourage anyone and everyone to give these a try and see what works best for you.  You’ll certainly have fun!

3 Responses to Mapping Vintage Photographs

  1. That’s a really interesting article about a rapidly developing and changing field. Plenty to explore – many thanks!

  2. WhatWasThere says:

    Hi, James. I “tweeted” you, but thought I’d comment here, too. This is a comprehensive and fair assessment — well done! We’re in the process of pushing out our second wave of features, and we were wondering if you would care to provide feedback? If interested, please email us at [email protected]

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