Five years ago, Dave Tomkins’s grandfather Stephen Clarke had to go into a nursing home. While helping clean out his grandfather’s newly emptied house, Tomkins, an Australian art director, found a big box of slides and a clunky slide viewer from 1952 in the back of a cupboard. His grandfather had been a navigator for the Air Force in WWII and then worked as a mall manager. He had never mentioned these photos or ever having been a photographer.
“When I found the slides, I lost my tiny mind and got them scanned,” Tomkins tells Co.Design in an email. The images were hauntingly beautiful, with snowy cobblestone streets here, a Ferris wheel overlooking a village there. “I took them down to grandpa in the nursing home and showed him, hoping for a few amazing grandpa stories. I wanted to make him a book, something to give him more to think about in that home than catheter bags and test results,” Tomkins says. Unfortunately, his grandfather, couldn’t remember much about where and when the photos were taken.
So Tomkins decided to play detective by asking the public for help identifying the locations in these photos. He would build a website, Grandpas-Photos.com, featuring 50 of his grandfather’s best images, and visitors would submit clues. “The plan was to get thousands of people looking at and loving his photos, and to do an exhibition getting people to take the same photos today all over the world, and present it to him as final proof that he was a great photographer. He was the only person left to convince.” But in July of last year, his grandpa died, peacefully, of old age, at 90.
“I’ve tried not to dwell on this bit on the site,” Tomkins says. “I kicked myself for a while having not finished the site before Grandpa died. Maybe other people will take the hint and visit their grandpas a bit more.”
The site is now live and Tomkins still hopes to crowdsource information about the places in his grandfather’s photographs. To devote himself fully to the project he’s spent five years on so far, Tomkins has quit his job at the New York branch of ad agency Mother.
So far, he’s found out (through other family members) that his grandpa had worked for Proud Jewelers, an Australian jewelry franchise, for which he’d taken several work trips overseas (“a big deal, as they weren’t very well-off”). On his trips, he’d take photos with a Voigtlander Bessamatic–an old school camera with a handheld light meter. When he got home, he’d give his family a slide show, then put the slides in the cupboard.
And Tomkins is taking the long way home to Australia, planning to travel to the places where his grandfather shot these photos and rephotograph them as they are today. From the clues in the photos, so far he’s planning to visit Interlaken, Switzerland, Venice and Florence, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Eventually, his grandpa’s travels will be mapped out with the help of Google Maps and Streetview. It’s a way of honoring his grandfather’s memory, to learn and tell stories that could’ve been lost.