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Past, present collide in U. social media project

As Arianna Kazez '15 and Izaak Baker '15 strode out of Hope College last month, they nearly collided with three members of the class of 1888, who had just strolled through a gate that no longer exists.

Kazez was armed with an umbrella and rain boots, but George Brown 1888, Eli Whitney Blake, Jr. 1888 and Francis Brownell 1888, who were reading on their way to class, did not seem to notice the rain. Sporting bowler hats and pocket watches, their attire contrasted with the modern students' skirt and jeans. Clearly some wrinkle in time or radical change in fashion was at play.

Or so it appears in a recent photograph composed by Mike Cohea, visual communications specialist for Public Affairs and University Relations, for his album, "Brown: Then, Now and Forever."

At the end of 2011, Cohea was looking for a way to connect generations of students in honor of Brown's upcoming 250th anniversary celebrations set to launch in 2014. He was walking down the steps of Sayles Hall when inspiration struck.

"It kind of hit me that these are the same steps that have always been here, that have been here since Sayles was constructed," he said. "And then I wondered - since it was new to me - if Brown students themselves had ever really thought about that." As an experienced photojournalist, he knew just the medium to bring the past into focus alongside the present.

He took the idea to juxtapose archival photos with contemporary shots to John Murphy, who had recently been named Brown's social media specialist.

"I remember one of the first meetings Mike and I had," Murphy recalled. "He said, 'I have this really cool idea of using the archive's photos.'" 

Cohea proceeded to show him how he planned to hold up an old photo of the campus in front of a present-day scene with a similar background, blending two eras of Brown's history. He had seen the technique used before, to overlay World War II images with recent pictures of the same locations, but never to explore the history of a university.

Murphy was immediately on board, and before long, the two were combing the archives for historical photos.

'Goofing off'

Raymond Butti, senior library specialist in special collections, has worked at the John Hay Library for "a very long time" and enjoys reading 100-year-old scrapbooks on rainy days. When he learned of Cohea and Murphy's project, he agreed to help them sift through the library's archives.

Most of the older photographs in the archives, dating from the 1860s to the 1900s, were taken from "class albums," large books of campus shots and individual portraits. Graduating seniors could pick and choose their albums' content by filling out order forms. Other old photos were found in scrapbooks, pasted next to an assortment of newspaper clippings, invitations, dance cards, football tickets and various unexplained oddities.

"One person had a pack of cigarettes" in his album, Butti said. "There were still cigarettes in it - Lucky Strikes."

Among the rarest sources of photos is a personal album of "a classmate of Eli Whitney Blake" - the same Eli Whitney Blake that Cohea transported into the 21st century. The scenes inside, captured by Blake's classmate Charles Cooke 1888, provide a revealing glimpse into life at Brown more than 100 years ago.

"Everyone thinks the 1880s were so stiff," said Butti, smiling. He knows the real story: Behind the book's nondescript, slightly deteriorating cover, Blake, Brown, Brownell, Cooke and their compatriots are pictured playing poker, carrying laundry and participating in various other activities that could only be described as "goofing off." These similarities and differences were what Cohea and Murphy hoped to highlight.

Past and present aligned

They spent hours in the library, examining thousands of photos. The ideal shot would contain a good point of reference that would be recognizable today, such as a building or a monument. But in order to be truly engaging, it also needed to include people.

"The right photograph is so hard," Cohea said. "It's like a needle in a haystack."

Murphy said they began by choosing photos with "evergreen content" that would be relevant year-round, such as students walking between classes or a wrestling match on the green. Later on they started to plan ahead, finding the perfect shots from the past to complement current events. In one photo, the 2012 Commencement procession merges with graduates from the mid-1920s as they pass through the Van Wickle Gates. In another, football players from 1925 score a touchdown, paired with last month's Homecoming game against Harvard.

"We try to find things that are quirky and interesting that would appeal to people," said Cohea, citing the wrestling photo, his personal favorite, as an example.

Once he chose an image, Cohea would scout out the exact location where it had been taken, hold up the photo against its new background and wait for the right moment: when past and present aligned in a way that would be most interesting to viewers. Then he would adjust the depth of field with Photoshop, and after some final processing, it would be ready for its online debut.

One by one, the photos have gone viral since January, some of them generating dozens of comments and as many as 908 likes on Facebook. The one featuring Kazez even made the front page of Reddit, a website where users share and vote on interesting content, which exposed the photograph to new viewers.

"It's pretty cool," said Kazez, who was walking back into Hope with Baker when Cohea asked to take their picture. "It's interesting to see the contrast between us and them."

The numerous comments posted by current and past students also note the changes that have taken place over the years.

"Favorite part of this series: Women and people of color are replacing the WASPy men of yesterday," commented Caitlin Barth '06 on Facebook. "So proud to be an alum!"

Others, such as Joseph Haletky '68, pointed out some aspects of student life that have remained constant. "Two wettest days in my life: first day of Freshman week in September 1964 and Commencement Day in May of 2003 (for my 35th Reunion)," he commented on Facebook.

Cohea and Murphy, who expected only 200 or 300 likes per photo, were delighted - and surprised - by their work's overwhelmingly positive reception.

"The stats were pretty astounding," Murphy said.

"I think the beauty is that the Brown community today and the alums around the nation - and the world, frankly - are interested in their history and the history of the institution," said Marisa Quinn, vice president of public affairs and University relations. "And as we're approaching the 250th anniversary of our founding, I think we're all thinking about it more and more ... Mike's photographs are resonating."

And Cohea isn't finished. More archived photos are yet to come, waiting for the right occasion when they can be matched to their present-day counterparts.

"I think my quota is 250?" he said, laughing. "It's a goal."

'Then, Now and Forever'

Social media is an integral part of the image Brown presents to the world. But Quinn said the University's exploration of digital media is relatively recent. Only a few years ago, students were helping the Office of Public Affairs and University Relations form the basis of Brown's presence on social media.

"It was clear that it was a useful tool - one for communication, but also for engagement," she said. 

The University hired Murphy as its first social media specialist about a year ago. "It's helped us think so much more strategically about how we integrate social media into all of our efforts to showcase the best of Brown."

In an effort to further utilize digital technology, Brown's website was overhauled in 2010. The new homepage was designed to showcase imagery and video, much of which comes from the PAUR and from Cohea himself.

Murphy believes that "Brown: Then, Now and Forever," as Brown's latest media success, will encourage Facebook users to check Brown's page more frequently. It will also help draw attention to other items, such as press releases about new research, that are posted online.

Perhaps most importantly, the photos draw together the Brown community, both from around the world and across a span of more than 200 years.

"Even if they're living in Hawaii or Hong Kong or North Carolina," Quinn said, people can "look and feel like they're here and they can get an understanding of the place."


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