Seeing history in the present is usually a metaphorical thing. Yes, that artillery fire made that slab of concrete need a replacement--it looks newer than the rest-- but you usually don't know what caused historical destruction, let alone see the soldier who did the shooting. Sergey Larenkov, a Russian photographer, changes that by overlaying WWII-era photographs over pictures taken in the same places in the modern day.
Since Larenkov is Russian, he is most interested in working with photographs from the Siege of Leningrad. Most of his other photographs were taken in St. Petersburg, Vienna and Berlin, as well as Paris and Prague. The photographs focus in particular on the objects and people of war on top of the peaceful photographs of today—a tank with flags blazing rolls by a pack of parked cars, a communist parade toting a banner with a hammer and sickle walks down a normal German street, soldiers pass pedestrians holding full shopping bags. Perhaps not so unusual for citizens during World War II, but seeing these modern cities blending in with their past is a little unsettling.
Blending is perhaps a more accurate description of Larenkov’s work than overlay. The black-and-white photographs simply fade in and out of color photographs—buildings are half-colored, painted road signs are both modern and WWII-era on the same street, snowy grass swirls into green. Particularly engaging are Larenkov's photographs of solid buildings, huge city centers, stalwart pillared buildings, statue-roofed structures that look like they have been the same since the beginning of their creation. With destruction and devastation blended into their solidity, however, Larenkov makes dissembling parts of the building as real and solid as the building stands today.
Perhaps this idea of blending past and present is what Larenkov is commenting with these photographs. Rather than history being underneath modernity—and sometimes poking out—history and modernity are created as a tapestry, seamlessly blending into one another. To a St. Petersburg resident even now, a building may never look right without a huge cannon pointed at it; some Berliners may have to look twice to make sure there isn’t a group of soldiers with artillery rifles walking down the street. There could be no modernity without history, Larenkov seems to say, but there is no history without the modernity that follows it, either.
Larenkov makes his photographs by finding old WWII-era photographs. He mentions that he spent a lot of time in the St. Petersburg historical society, sifting through their stacks of photographs. Then he takes a modern snapshot of the same shot from the same point of view. He then uses Photoshop to blend them together, working manually to precisely interpose the old photograph on top of the new one.
Researchers have recently found a way to automate this overlaying of photographs. Currently the interlaying happens on a computer, but eventually it will move to the inside of a camera. The software looks at a historical photograph and then gives the photographer instructions for lining it up—such as a little bit left or drag it higher. The software is currently available at Flickr and Historypin so even amateur photographs can compare and contrast the past and the present like Larenkov has done in these photographs.