Like others in her family, Ann Welch has always been intrigued with the history of Port Townsend and Jefferson County. In part that's because her family's name is woven through that history in almost every generation. So is the love of photographs.
In a labor of love that has spanned most of a year, Welch has turned that intrigue into an innovative, almost magical way to both visit the past and to track, in a visual way, the changes that have come over the decades.
The result is a CD titled “Port Townsend: Then and Now.'' It is an interactive CD that explores Port Townsend's past through historic photographs and allows the viewer to watch decades of change wash through the old image as it is updated to modern times in a few second’s.
The historical photographs came from several sources. The Jefferson County Historical Society (JCHS) and the collection of her grandfather George Welch are chief among them.
The Welch family has deep roots.
You know of both Manresa Castle on Sims Way and the Mount Baker Block Building anchoring the downtown. Both were built by Prussian immigrant Charles Eisenbeis, the biggest of the capitalists and investors who built what is now historic Port Townsend. Eisenbeis' daughter Lillian married George Welch of Port Angeles. Welch moved to Port Townsend, where he was a banker and an insurance man and also operated a photography studio.
“His true love was photography,'' said Ann. “That's where his soul was.'' While he shot city scenes, he was increasingly drawn to the Olympic Mountains.
Most of his images, on 3x5-inch negatives, were shot between 1903 and 1925. They were passed on to, among others, son Joe Welch, who was the father of Ann and her brother Mark Welch. Mark is now the mayor of Port Townsend, is also a photographer and teaches video production at Port Townsend High School.
Ann grew up here but spent years in Seattle, where she operated a hot glass studio. She moved back to Port Townsend five years ago.
In 2002 she started using her grandfather's old images of the Olympics to discover the same spot from which he had snapped the shutter. (Welch Peaks near Mount Townsend are named after him.) It was exhilarating to find the place and take a modern photo of the same scene, she said.
But during winter 2005, held back from the mountains by the snow, she tried the same feat with historic images from Port Townsend and other towns. Some came from her grandfather', many others came from the JCHS.
“I worked on it obsessively,” she said, “seven days a week. It was a big learning curve. I hit it hard for most of a year”
Welch: Recognizing history
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Welch went through a diligent process with each image. First she scanned a negative or photograph at a high resolution, in many cases 1,600 dpi. These images were put into Photoshop, an imaging application, where she meticulously' repaired damage and restored the photo. The old pictures would emerge from hours of work with sharp details restored.
“I make a hard copy of the photograph to take with me into the field,'' she said. “Then it is a lot of driving and hopefully I can find the match.”
Finding the match means finding exactly the same spot. “Using the original as a guide, it is a process of finding reference points and positioning the camera to find the right view,” she said. With a digital camera she gets as close to the same image as she can.
But it's never perfect. Optics, the focal length of lenses and depth of field all distort the image. But the beauty and power of Welch's work is the extent to which she ensured the old image and the new one were adjusted so every point of each picture lines up perfectly.
The results presented in 100 images of individual buildings, townscapes and landscapes on the CD, is sometimes breathtaking. Starting with the original historic photograph in black and white, the user clicks on an option for the color image taken in 2006 by Welch, and witness a gradual transformation of the image that brings the century-old building into the present. Every corner of the house holds perfectly still, even as the people in the foreground disappear and terrain around the buildings changes.
In a few cases, such as the old Catholic Church, the building disappears altogether. In most, however, the old structure is clearly visible in the modern view.
Wrote Welch in the CD:
“I am a fourth generation Port Townsendite. During my lifetime, I have seen many changes in Port Townsend and the surrounding area, an inevitable part of life and place. Many of theses changes have been so gradual that they hardly register on one’s consciousness, others are rapid; a building gone, a new building built, or a massive remodel. In the past Point Hudson was a swamp, Memorial Field was filled with buildings, there was a street (Front Street) on piers beyond Water Street, and a trolley provided mass transit.”
The CD is remarkably interactive, allowing the visitor to zoom in and see details and to scan across a landscape.
The interactive exploration is exciting to me,” said Welch. “I might be a total geek, but I like it that it has user control.
You can see much of what has come and gone in her remarkable CE- a connection between the old and the new. The CD sells for $19.95 at the JCHS in old City Hall and on Welch’s website: www.porttownsendthenandnow.com.