The past, present and future of a community are inexorably linked, and since the advent of photography, there’s been no better way to compare and contrast where we’ve been, where we are — and where we’re going.
Two years ago, photographer Bailey Davidson chronicled more than 100 years of history in a self–published book about Milledgeville, his hometown, re–creating vintage photos from that Georgia city’s historical archives by standing – literally – in the same spot and snapping the architecture as it looks now.
Davidson has upped the ante with the publication of Savannah Past and Present, a 160–page coffee–table book depicting the city’s evolution, through the juxtaposition of archival and contemporary photos, set together on the same page.
“You can’t do anything without the old images — that’s your inspiration,” Davidson, 39, explains. “So you find your sources. In Savannah we’re lucky as hell, because we’ve got the Georgia Historical Society, which has got a huge collection of Savannah images. The Georgia Archives has some stuff, Coastal Heritage Society, Tybee Island Historical Society. Everybody has a collection of images.
“Other places in Georgia, and in the United States, they’re not as lucky. When I was doing the Milledgeville book, I was really pushed to find enough images to make the content good. I would have liked to include a lot more.”
Using archival shots from the 1930s and earlier as a sort of road map, Davidson photographed more than 500 locations. In many cases, the transition from rural town to small city to bustling metropolis was dramatic.
There are views of River Street, City Market, the squares, major buildings and intersections and even historic Tybee sites including Fort Screven and the old (and currently–under–renovation) Tybee Post Theatre.
Davidson says the experience, for him, was like “time travel,” which he feels is the most effective way to tell a story.
It wasn’t always a cinch, pulling back the veil of history.
“There were a few places where the streets have changed, or the building simply doesn’t exist any more,” the photographer explains. “But it you have an address, you can get the gist of things. The city fire records are a great source, too.”
He photographed each site between 50 and 100 times, until he got the exact re–creation — location, angle and framing — he needed.
“A lot of times,” says Davidson, “it would take two or three times going back to look at something before I could say ‘Oh, I see it now.’ But that’s part of the fun.”
Savannah Past and Present includes 144 images — the best of the best.
“I shot everything I possibly could,” he adds. “That was the only way I could really figure out if it was worth including in the book or not. You can look at it, but not until you lay it out and really look at it can you decide to edit it or not.
“I would have loved to have made this book three times the size that it is, but it simply came down to keeping the cost down so that people could afford it.”
Limited to 2,000 copies, Savannah Past and Present is available at The Book Lady, E. Shavers, ShopSCAD and the Davenport House.
There are ghosts in the book: The archival photos show lots of people (interesting in themselves), but Davidson’s present–day pictures are almost exclusively of architecture, with few humans in sight.
That’s because he shot most of them after morning’s first light.
“You can’t be standing in the middle of the street, you’ll get killed,” he explains. “Sometimes shooting was dangerous. Back then, when they were taking a picture, they just had to dodge carriages. They had a good minute to get out of the way.”
Nevertheless, he soldiered on, because he had a vision: He wanted to encourage a sense of community appreciation in the younger generation, “to kind of open up their eyes and respect the place where they live,” he says. “The place they call home.”
Just like Milledgeville, Davidson says, there’s a lot of vandalism in Savannah. “That,” he admits, “just happens in college towns.
“I want people to look at it and say ‘I can’t believe this place is this old. I walk by here every day, smashed a beer bottle over there, I tagged this wall right here. A lot of people have been here before me, and will probably be here after me, and it’s everybody’s job to keep this place beautiful and respect it.’
“That’s why people travel from all over the world to come to Savannah, because it’s such a beautiful place. Because we try so hard to keep it beautiful. It makes me a little crazy when people don’t respect that.”