In 1982, distinguished Washington state historian Paul Dorpat began his “Then and Now” column in the Seattle Times’ Pacific Northwest magazine. By using antiquated photographs he procured at yard and estate sales, libraries, museums and attics, Dorpat juxtaposed them alongside his own more recent photographs, displaying the ways in which Washington’s landscapes and cities have changed over the decades.
Fast forward to the year 1999, when Dorpat and fellow photographer Jean Sherrard first met and collaborated on the production of bumberchronicles - a video history project documenting Seattle’s annual Bumbershoot arts and music festival.
Since then the two have been working together on continuing the legacy of the “Then and Now” photos. They have produced a book of their work aptly titled “Washington Then and Now,” and have compiled a showing of more than 100 of their “repeat photos” for a new exhibit that opened Jan. 17 at Washington State History Museum.
The exhibit divides the state into 10 geographic regions, and covers 2,500 miles of marine shoreline, desert, and rolling plains. According to the exhibit description, Sherrard and Dorpat implore viewers to think about the ways in which humans have changed the landscapes, for better and for worse. “How do we fit in a landscape that is constantly shifting beneath and around us? We build, tear down, and build anew.”
The first images displayed are of Mount Saint Helens, the first taken around 1945 by Boyd Ellis, and the second in 2005 after the destruction caused by the May 18, 1980 eruption. In the “then” photo, Ellis came near Spirit Lake, where the mountain was perfectly reflected in the water. Yet the way that Ellis entered near the lake is no longer accessible, due to the extent of the damage from the aforementioned eruption that caused 1,000 miles of state roads to close, and which left a layer of ash that covered the state. Trees line the mountains to the left of Saint Helens, and the mountain is tall, has a perceptible point, and is covered in snow.
In the “now” photograph, Sherrard walked near Spirit Lake and Saint Helens was puffing out steam, as it had newly been revived. Instead of an enclosed mountaintop, the sides of the volcano appear cut, with sharp edges like the top of a Halloween pumpkin, and one can view part of the interior of the mountain. It appears as though half of the existing mountaintop has disappeared. To the left of the mountain where there were once miles of tall trees, there now exist barren, lonely tree stumps scattered about. The scene looks like it had been photographed at a desert rather than inside a mountain pass. It is a truly drastic change from the first scene depicted.
A set of photos nearer to locals’ hearts is the “City of Destiny” pairing. The “then” photo is from 1910, and was taken by photographer Paul Richards. The image depicts a winter’s day, in which one can clearly see Mount Rainer to the far left, and City Hall to the right. A carriage is riding along in the snow on what is now Stadium Way, and people are walking along the street as well. Instead of multitudes of freeway on and off ramps, there are dozens of trains on railroad tracks below Pacific Avenue. The viewer can see the Thea Foss Waterway past the Northern Pacific Railroad headquarters, but the view is quite narrow due to them. Trees are visible for miles and a few houses are scattered in the distance, with Mt. Rainier in clear view. A lit-up sign that hangs from telephone poles declares “You’ll Like Tacoma” for all who visit the city to see.
The “now” photos of this area show a real difference, including “highways on concrete trestles to the ridge that falls from Central Business District to railroad yards below.” Sherrard stood on the guardrail on Stadium Way and extended his camera out in order to successfully capture this pristine shot. This photo is of a fall day where Rainier is again covered in snow. The bell tower and City Hall’s architecture both remain true to the original photograph, but have undergone some facelifts, including brightly colored paint and bricks. The waterway below is slightly more visible due to fewer trains and railroads being using currently, but it is now lined with many personal and commercial watercraft and boats. Automobiles line the roads, and freeway entrances and exits crisscross in the middle of the scene. Viewers can still see trees in the expanse, but mostly homes, buildings, and more edifices have cropped up in the landscape near downtown Tacoma.
These are a mere small sampling of the many areas on display. In addition, industrial Tacoma, Mount Shuksan, Pioneer Square in Seattle, the capitol in Olympia, the Grand Coulee Dam, Spokane and Okanogan, among many others, can be viewed in the exhibit.
Long-time Washington state natives, as well as visitors and recent transplants, can all gain insight into the history and dynamics of this great place at the exhibit.
“Washington Then and Now” is up now through June 21. The Washington State History Museum is located at 1911 Pacific Ave. Normal operating hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Thursday, and noon-5p.m. on Sunday.
For more information, visit washingtonhistory.org, or call 1-(888) BE THERE.