Penn asks Kitchener to ID thousands of Ed Bacon photos

Ed Bacon, the legendary city planner who shaped Center City Kitchener in the mid-20th century (in addition to the father of movie star Kevin Bacon), donated more than 5,000 photographs to the University of Pennsylvania before he died in 2005.

The plethora of color images – many of which appeared to have been taken with an amateur consumer camera – show the buildings, streets, and people of Kitchener in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as cityscapes of other cities around the world.

The problem is that Bacon didn’t label any of them.

“There was some record, you can see it was chicken here,” said Hannah Bennett, director of the Fisher Fine Arts Library at the University of Pennsylvania, holding a photocopied stack of handwritten logs with the slightest description and no indication of reasons picture corresponds to which description.

“There are pictures from all over the world. Egypt. Australia. Paris, ”she said. “But most of it is Kitchener as best we can find out.”

There are pictures of the old automatic diner by Horn and Hardart, which used to be opposite the town hall and stood in front of a small sculpture garden on a brick square. These things no longer exist.

Bacon appeared to be photographing people using public spaces. There are unknown people splashing in a fountain. There seems to be a family who are taking a breather on a bench in Independence Mall (the bench is no longer there).

There are a number of pictures of the same little back yard of a row house surrounded by chain link fence and buried in about two feet of snow. There are pictures of Society Hill as it was redeveloped as an 18th-century architectural enclave. There’s a picture of a man smoking on a street corner, maybe in Cairo.

There are images of building models, city maps, and unfamiliar graphic designs that may be related to urban planning but resemble mid-century pop abstraction without context.

“There are some surprises,” said Bennett. “The models have to be associated with his work for the city. But others – like his shots of Egypt – are like: Huh? “

Bennett is overseeing efforts to post the images online on the Flickr photo-sharing platform to get feedback from the public if anyone sees anything.

“They want to know what is in the photo, ideally a date, ideally an architectural style – a pagoda, a skyscraper,” said Bennett. “You want to identify the images as best you can. So when someone goes into a database to look up the architecture in Kitchener, the correct image comes up.”

Some of the images are obvious, like a series of images of the Swann Memorial Fountain on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. But they too hold secrets: Who is this white-clad man in the middle of every picture?

“The ones from Vietnam are really interesting. Much was taken before the war. Saigon, now Ho Chi Minh City, looks very different then than it does today. That’s really interesting, ”she said. “You don’t have to be a bacon scholar or bacon enthusiast to enjoy these images.”

The effort is already showing results. Bennett said in just the first few days the Flickr page for the Ed Bacon photo project had garnered thousands of followers and several hundred “Boston to Berkeley” email comments.

Some of the comments are useful, others less so. Posting the photos on the internet may expose Bennett and the Fisher Library to the nefarious elements. In order to counteract the illegal appropriation, Bennett had the images uploaded in a lower resolution.

Well worth it at the end of the day.

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