In The Pipeline: 'Seeing' time with then and now shots

Recently, while speaking at Hope View School, I showed the kids a series of images. They were all taken from the same spot, standing at the head of the pier, looking down Main Street in Huntington Beach. But the images were taken at different points in history, so as one shot dissolved into another, the kids could see the passage of time: one picture in 1915, then 1942, then 1960, 1985 and on to the present day.

The kids gasped as the images evolved, reacting to the simple drama of a makeshift exercise in time-lapse photography. Perhaps it was because they're familiar with the area, so the revelation of what it had been like before was simply a surprise. Or maybe they had a preference for the old look versus the new. Whatever inspired their reactions, it pleased me to see that I'm not the only one fascinated by "then and now" photography.

It's hard for me to explain what it is about the practice of lining up an old photo in the same angle and then reshooting it that excites me so much. I tried to explain it in the introduction of my new book, "Orange County Then and Now" from Arcadia Publishing: "I have shot then/now photos all over the United States. It's a true passion of mine to stand in the footsteps of another photographer and re-create what he or she framed up decades before. Comparing the two shots is a way to 'see' back in time; to make it a tangible, measurable element — a most exciting proposition."

"Seeing" time. I suppose that's what it is — experiencing firsthand how a location has progressed (or regressed, depending on one's point of view) over the years. While the book presents side-by-side images throughout the county, it's the local comparisons that drew me in the most for obvious reasons. This is home, this is our backyard, and so I was naturally more intrigued with measuring the physical changes in images of Huntington Beach (and many of those are in the book).

It's not news that the downtown area is much different now than it was then. Looking at images of the Golden Bear site today, it's hard to even place precisely where it sat, given the amount of development that's taken place since the mid-1980s.

Then there's the Pacific Electric train depot that sat right about where the tourist info kiosk is today in front of Duke's. What was it like the day the photographer took the "then" image in 1935? It was so bustling back then as people enjoyed the beach and the sounds of swing that would have been pouring forth from the Pav-A-Lon Ballroom (where Duke's sits now). Was Hoagy Carmichael performing "Stardust" there that day, perhaps? No doubt the scent of oil from the nearby forest of well towers that had sprung up along Pacific Coast Highway was heavy in the air.

Also in the book is a 1933 image of the Bolsa Chica Gun Club. A pair of men is surveying damage to the road leading to the club the day after the devastating Long Beach Earthquake. I usually take a morning walk at the Bolsa Chica Wetlands, near the site of the old club, so I know this spot well. After lining up the old image and reshooting it, though, I can never walk the trail and not picture those two men, like ghosts in the fog.

There are many other spots in our city, some dramatically changed, others identical to what they were decades ago. I'll be speaking about them at 2 p.m. Sunday during a book signing at Barnes & Noble at Bella Terra. I'd be delighted if you could join me to perhaps share your "then and now" memories of Huntington Beach.

My daughter and I will also be sharing some of the penguin shots we took recently in Antarctica.

If you have any old photos you took while growing up here, bring them along. Maybe I'll be able to go out and reshoot them for you at some point. After all, there's just something about "seeing" time.


Follow up

You may remember me writing about Mike Fisher. He's the Huntington Beach High School graduate who was stricken with a brain tumor and is still fighting for his life. Mike's mom, Nancy, sent me a note to say that from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday, all Orange County Chili's restaurant locations will donate 15% of sales toward the Mike Fisher Fund. So come out and help this amazing young man.

CHRIS EPTING is the author of 18 books, including the new "Hello, It's Me: Dispatches from a Pop Culture Junkie." You can write him at

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