As the homepage for Dear Photograph explains it, the idea is simple: "Take a picture of a picture from the past in the present."
That's basically what the brand's founder, Taylor Jones, did last May when he was flipping through his family album and noticed a photo of his brother that was taken at the same kitchen table they were both sitting at in their Kitchener, Ontario, home. Jones then held the old photo up and realized that his brother was seated at the same spot, while he was sitting at same angle his mother had been at when she snapped the photo. So the 21-year-old took a picture of the picture. He did the same with a few more of the photos in the album, sent them to his friends for approval, and quickly bought the Dear Photograph domain name to upload his discoveries and write out sincere captions below them to engage the unfamiliar Internet surfers with some context.
Now, Jones, 22, is coasting on a wave of success. Dear Photograph has been named Time's 7th Best Website of 2011, it's been featured on every major news network from CBS to Al-Jazeera, and it's been named-dropped by online luminaries, including Arianna Huffington and Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, as one of their favorite pages to scroll through. And of course, the success doesn't stop there. Today marks the release date for Jones' latest enterprise, a coffee-table book version of the same name, Dear Photograph. Ironically, the book functions much like an updated photo album, with old photographs returned in newer forms.
Complex caught up with Jones to talk about the release of his new book, the desire for nostalgia in a technology-driven world, and why he feels Dear Photograph was simply the product of being at the right place at the right time.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
How would you describe that moment when this idea first hit you?
When I saw the photo of my brother, it was kind of like I had one of those a-ha! moments. I had a few websites beforehand that were not the best websites in the world, but I finally hit a home run with this one. I mean, the idea’s been done before, but the thing that makes it different is the caption so you really understand the juxtaposition between the present time and the past.
When you first uploaded it online, did you expect it to become an Internet phenomenon?
No, I had absolutely no idea. [Laughs.] I guess it was really good timing because the whole nostalgia thing right now is pretty huge and mixing that with the whole emotional connection that it has with people. I was at the right place at the right time.
It’s cool to even think that I have this job of curating people’s memories. It’s something that I’ve been honored to do and I’m grateful that it ended up this way.
Why do you think that everyone is gravitating towards nostalgia these days?
Everything comes full circle. I think people are just longing for nostalgia because some people do want to remember what’s happened. I think with all the technology we have right now, it’s cool to be able to ground that with nostalgia. I think the whole technology thing is still so new and we’re still so young with it that being able to mix it with nostalgia is a good and fun mix.
You said you worked a regular job before this. What were you doing?
I still live in Kitchener, Ontario, which is an hour outside of Toronto. I’ve grown up here and everything. I went to school for advertising at a college in town. I started working at an agency called Quarry Integrated Media Communications, and I was an intern there. Then I applied for a job in Research In Motion, which is Blackberry, and I got the job as the Social Media Community Specialist there. I was just tweeting and stuff for RIM. It was a fun job and I met some really great people. But after a month I started at RIM, I started Dear Photograph and September 1st was my last day at RIM. I had to quit and take on Dear Photograph full-time.
It seems like it’s been paying off. I read you went to Hollywood and there are some talks of development deals. What’s going on with that?
I was spending a good amount of time out there. I met with a development team in Beverly Hills. But, yeah, we’ve been working on a few things. My one buddy wrote a script that we’re eventually going to be shopping around soon to see if there’s potential for a film or something. There’s lots of other cool things happening. We’re going to be working on an app soon.
I’ve seen a few recent ads that essentially use your idea. Was that with your permission and, if not, how did you feel about it?
Honestly, it’s been great. They didn’t ask me for permission but whenever it does happen, Dear Photograph has been branded so well that people automatically know that if someone’s holding up a photo in front of a camera, it’s a Dear Photograph photo. Whenever that happens, I guess my fan-base takes it and posts it on YouTube and comment on the video saying, “Oh, Dear Photograph did this,” or whatever, but like the fact that they did. It is just cool. I’m almost even honored that they’d do that. It’s obviously not my original idea, but I think I’ve popularized the idea and it’s recognizable to people around the world.
You talked about the importance of adding captions. Have you read any that’ve stuck with you?
There’s a few dedication ones that are in the book that are from my friends who lost their mom and their dad. Those are very special to me, as well as the one with my brother. There’s one in the book of a father who had chemo and his daughter in his arms. He wrote, “Dear Photograph, Her love is my chemo. I beat cancer.” That was one that really stood out to me.
I actually had a really good conversation with them when I phoned them. They’re from Texas, I believe. He talked about how he survived cancer and how they’re loving life and how they don’t have any regrets about anything anymore. They use Dear Photograph as a way to look back and remember the rough times and always live each day. It’s really cool to be able to talk to people and hear stuff like that.
Since you only post one photo a day, how do you choose one out of all of your submissions?
Usually, you just have to make sure the photo is good, that it’s all lined up, and it tells a great story. I have them all labeled based on themes and whatnot, so I have some for December, some for springtime, some for summer, and others for Christmastime. It all depends on how the photo is and how I’m feeling and what’s going on in the world.
But a lot of the things I get in are deaths of people. I guess the reason behind that is there’s so many people whose grandparents have been the ones who’ve taken photos and boxed those albums. So, I think when they pass away, people get those photos that are sitting around the house and it’s like their memories of them are these photographs. When people take a Dear Photograph photo, it’s a window into the past. They’re almost in that moment with them again. I think I get so many photos of deaths or of a parent who’s left their family or something because they are the ones who've the taken photos. It’s always been people from the past.
My youngest brother, who doesn’t have any photos in the book, he was born in ‘95 or ‘96. That’s when digital photography was starting to get more popular. He complains that he doesn’t have any photos laying around the house because they’re all on the computer now. It’s a weird thing to think that people aren’t printing out photos anymore but I think in due time, like everything else, it’ll come around. Soon enough, we’ll have people printing photos and Kodak won’t be bankrupt and so we’ll what happens.
Do you ever get any direct messages from people about how these photos have affected their life?
Yeah, I’ve had people tell me that they’ve driven like five or six hours to go see their parents whom they haven’t seen in a year or two because they want to go home and go through their old family photos. It’s crazy to think that this simple idea that I came up with at my kitchen table is affecting someone so much that it’s making them go back and see their relatives whom they haven’t seen in awhile.
It’s cool to even think that I have this job of curating people’s memories. It’s something that I’ve been honored to do and I’m grateful that it ended up this way. I’m really thankful for people that submit their photos and help make this project something really amazing.
What made you decide to compile these photos into a book?
I had no intention of making it into a book. I was just approached by a bunch of big book companies, so it was kind of like, “Yeah, you have to make a book now.” [Laughs.] I guess I didn’t really have a choice, but it’s been great to turn it into a book. It was me, my manager and the people from HarperCollins who chose the photos. We went through thousands and thousands of photos and then we narrowed it down to 400. Then, we had to cut half of them, sadly, and then put 200 in the book. It’s a good mix of different themes.
I never thought that I would call myself an author, but it’s amazing that it’s turned into something like this. It’s cool. It’s gone from me holding up a photo from an album and then putting it online and making a website, and now it’s come full circle —now it’s in a book. It’s pretty cool to see that whole transition.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)