Cities have long provided a rich environment for photography, at least to photographers not interested exclusively in nature. But only with the advent of the motion picture camera did the subject of cities find a photographic form that truly suited it. Hence the popularity in the 1920s of “city symphony” films, each of which sought to capture and present the real life of a different bustling industrial metropolis. But while city symphonies certainly hold up as works of art, they do make modern-day viewers wonder: what would all these capitals look like if I could gaze backward in time, looking not through the jittery, colorless medium of early motion-picture film, but with my own eyes?
Youtuber Ignacio López-Francos offers a step closer to the answer in the form of these four videos, each of which takes historical footage of a city, then corrects its speed and adds color to make it more lifelike.
At the top of the post we have “a collection of high quality remastered prints from the dawn of film taken in Belle Époque-era Paris, France from 1896-1900.” Shot by the Lumière company (which was founded by Auguste and Louis Lumière, inventors of the projected motion picture), the sights captured by the film include the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Tuileries Garden, the then-new Eiffel Tower, and the now-soon-to-be-rehabilitated but then-intact Notre Dame cathedral.
The Paris footage was colorized using DeOldify, “a deep learning-based project for colorizing and restoring old images.” So was the footage just above, which shows New York City in 1911 as shot by the Swedish company Svenska Biografteatern and released publicly by the Museum of Modern Art. “Produced only three years before the outbreak of World War I, the everyday life of the city recorded here — street traffic, people going about their business — has a casual, almost pastoral quality that differs from the modernist perspective of later city-symphony films,” say the accompanying notes. “Take note of the surprising and remarkably timeless expression of boredom exhibited by a young girl filmed as she was chauffeured along Broadway in the front seat of a convertible limousine.”
Shot twenty years later, these clips of New York’s Theater District have also undergone the DeOldify treatment, which gets the bright lights (and numerous ballyhooing signs) of the big city a little closer to the stunning quality they must have had on a new arrival in the 1930s. The streets of Havana were seemingly quieter during that same decade, at least if the colorized footage below is to be believed. But then, the history of tourism in Cuba remembers the 1930s as something of a dull stretch after the high-living 1920s that came before, during the United States’ days of Prohibition — let alone the even more daiquiri- and mojito-soaked 1950s that would come later, speaking of eras one dreams of seeing for oneself.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.