“Grandpa’s Photos” is exactly what it says on the title – vintage photographs taken by an Australian man named Stephen Clarke who frequently went on trips around the world. But make no mistake in concluding that it’s simply a showcase; Clarke’s grandson, Dave Tomkins, has also taken it upon himself to honor his late grandfather as a talented photographer. In this interview, Tomkins introduces him to us and shares the idea behind his personal project.
At his prime, Stephen Clarke often traveled overseas as part of his job as a jewelry buyer for Proud Jewelers. With his Voigtlander Bessamatic, Clarke took numerous remarkable photographs from his trips, which he would proudly share with his family through slide shows and then store in a box in a cupboard afterward. Despite having taken beautiful and well-composed shots, it became apparent that Clarke didn’t think too much of them, didn’t even fancy himself an actual photographer.
But his grandson, Dave Tomkins, who works as a creative in advertising, thought otherwise. Stumbling upon his grandfather’s slides while he helped clear out the latter’s house after being brought to a nursing home a few years back, Tomkins saw the makings of a great photographer.
Like any other grandchild in this situation, Tomkins was eager to learn the stories behind all those photographs straight from the person who took them. Although Clarke was glad to see his old photos and regarded them as something special, he couldn’t remember at the very least where any of them had been taken.
Thus, “Grandpa’s Photos” was born. In a nutshell, it’s a website dedicated to 100 photographs that Clarke took, carefully and painstakingly handpicked by Tomkins himself among hundreds more. “I picked the ones that made me wish I’d taken them myself. Probably the best way to narrow it down, I guess,” he said. Tomkins also observed that his grandfather “seems to have [not only] a great eye but also a very keen sense of composition.” “Lots of parallel lines and a brilliant use of depth of field,” he added.
Tomkins’ website actually works two ways: in addition to functioning as a virtual exhibition of sorts, it’s also proved to be an ingenious way to help identify the locations depicted in the photographs. Asked why he chose to rely on crowdsourcing information, he explained at length, “Being from Australia I don’t know the places in the photos. but I presumed the locations in the photos to other people are commonplace. Just as the Sydney Harbor Bridge is really easy for me to identify, I thought the landmarks in Grandpa’s Photos would be easy for others to do the same.”
Tomkins’ personal, heartfelt project has already reached many people across the globe. “The response and generosity of people online has been phenomenal,” he said," the emails I get daily are so detailed, so helpful, so thoughtful." As of this writing, Tomkins estimated that an astounding 90% of the locations had already been identified. Places include cities in Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Spain, and Hong Kong.
Asked what his next move would be, Tomkins said that he plans to visit these places himself. “[To] retake the photos and generate some of my own stories as, unfortunately, Grandpa is no longer here to tell me about his.” In fact, at the time of this interview, Tomkins was already in London, preparing for this photographic adventure. “I have packed my apartment in New York down to two small bags (including three cameras).” One of these cameras is a secondhand Voigtlander Bessamatic – just like what his Grandpa used – which he got from eBay.
In retrospect, Tomkins realized that his grandfathers’ slides have just been sitting inside that box in a cupboard while he visited him back in college. Tomkins only has fond recollections of his beloved Grandpa, the photographer: "He knew all about cameras, film, lighting, composition, etc. He used a handheld light meter, on the fly on his trips and the exposures we always perfect but he never said a word about it. Even when i went to visit him one time and made him pose for me when I had a photography assignment due.
“He never instructed or bragged. He always made you feel special, smart and important.”
All information, photographs, and captions in this article were provided to Lomography by Dave Tomkins. You may also visit the Grandpa’s Photos website and Facebook page to see all the photographs and the project’s progress. If you have a tip or two about the photographs’ locations, do let Dave know, too!