Person of the Week: Dear Photograph Blog Fuses Past and Present

PHOTO: A photo submitted to the blog Dear Photograph.com, its caption: Dear Photograph, Thank you for everything we had. As many as 57,000 people responded with comments and to share the photo.
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Reminiscence inside a rectangle; it's the story of any old family photo.

But one day while looking at albums in the house where he grew up, Taylor Jones of Kitchener, Ontario, had an odd sort of hunch. What would happen if he revisited the scene of an old photo -- like the one of his 5-year-old self posing in a tux on the front lawn 17 years ago -- by going back now to the place it was taken and matching it up?

Jones' impulse was to fit the edges of the rectangle of the world gone by to the world that's still here.

The result: Something almost like what you've seen done before, yet something new leaps out, dragging you across time and into the present, an unexpectedly fascinating way to sense time and space and the human connections that give them meaning.

Jones shot a bunch more of the new-old photos and put them online, creating a site he called Dear Photograph.

"I sent it to a few friends and ever since then, it 's been history," he said.

From all over the world, people began sending their own pictures within a picture, along with captions that, while brief, also told complex stories in a glance.

There are the three girls pictured in front of their father's grave. The caption: Dear Photograph, We outgrew the clothes, but never the visits with you, Daddy.

And a baby waving through the storm door of a home. Its caption: Dear Photograph, Dad never took a picture of me, ever. Then I noticed his reflection in the glass. Happy Father's Day, Dad.

The site has drawn 4 million hits since it launched in May, with visitors from 209 countries. The lion's share of them were drawn to the story of Robert Stampf, now 85, whose son, Jonathan, posted a photo of his father pictured with an old photo of his parents sitting together on a bench.

Robert Stampf was 14 when he fell in love with Jonathan's mother, Doris. When asked by his son what made him fall in love, he said jokingly, "She had a skirt."

Doris and Robert Stampf married and grew old together.

One day the couple sat together on a bench. She wore a wig; she was battling cancer at the time. But her smile was resplendent.

And then she died.

Without knowing anything about the Stampfs, only what could be seen in the photo, and read in that simple caption, 63,000 people responded to the Dear Photograph post, reposting and writing in to the site with comments such as, "We are getting married in September. May we be as happy as your parents were ..."

To hear Robert Stampf talk about his wife and their life together is to think that people saw something real in the image.

"It helps me to remember still how my wife smiled," he said. "I can't remember a single moment in our whole lives that I did anything but like her and love her. ... I could never say that we used to have a fight, we never fought. We had differences of opinion and I hate to admit it, but usually she was right.''

Jonathan remembers his mother as someone who touched the lives of many. "Everyone who knew her felt something special about her,'' he said. "People liked themselves better when they were with her."

It was Jonathan's idea to make a picture in a picture for Dear Photograph, back at that same bench.

"Dear Photograph, Thank you for everything we had," the caption read.

The caption was taken from some words Robert spoke during the family's first Thanksgiving after Doris died.

Jonathan had asked his father to say grace. "Everybody shot daggers at me, "what are you doing to dad?"

"But he just took it in step and he bowed his head and he said, 'Lord, thank you for everything we have, and thank you for everything we had.' And it's probably the best prayer I've ever heard, and it was just from his heart at that moment. Gratitude for what we'd had, instead of resentment that we don't have it anymore.''

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