Today’s Instagram Daredevils Can Trace Their Roots to the Early 20th Century

history urban exploration
All images by the Library of Congress. No known restrictions on publication.

These Library of Congress images from the early 20th Century would feel right at home under Instagram’s urban exploration hashtag.

Climbing the rooftops of tall buildings for “Likes” is not a new concept in the least. Some of today’s IG daredevils can find their photographic ancestors in and around the U.S. during the 1920’s. In a recent blog post in the Library of Congress’ Double Take, a series of images from the Harris & Ewing collection and the National Photo Collection features acrobat J. Reynolds (it’s not known if the subject’s real name was John, Johnnie, or Jammie), and his aerial stunts in and around Washington D.C. in the early 20th Century. These images share an interesting resemblance to many images you might find by searching for urban exploration or #rooftop on Instagram today.

Forefathers UrbanExploration

Photo by National Photo Company, between 1912 and 1930. Library of Congress

Bridging the gap – Spectacle and Photography

For context, in the years after the First World War, the U.S. found itself enjoying economic prosperity (mostly because our infrastructure was largely unaffected by the devastation that occurred throughout Europe). One of the cultural trends of the time was a publicity stunt like pole sitting or scaling the face of tall buildings.

Yes, it was a trend…

At the time these were over the top spectacles that drew crowds and photographers hoping to capture the moment. These early 20th century images capture the spectacle of Reynolds’ street performances much in the same way many Instagrammers share their perspectives of the world around them–except that, you know, they had permission to do this kind of stuff back then and didn’t sneak into places. Each of the images conveys a sense of freedom, wonder, and uniqueness about their subject.

Forefathers UrbanExploration

Photo by Harris & Ewing, between 1921 and 1924

From a technical standpoint, much of the composition is not unlike the styles used by many current photographers. Using sharp angles to exaggerate height and scale are freely employed even in this early style of urban photography. All in all, the Harris & Ewing images had the distinction of employing both the perspective of passersby or of a spectator on the roof; each image helping elicit the feeling of what it must have been like to be in that moment.
Forefathers UrbanExploration

Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1917

Both the adventure photographer of today and the stunt men of days past hope to capture the collective imaginations of the people of their societies. Today’s Urban Exploration photographers (the ones who do this type of stuff) hope to capture the spectacle of their urban environments while still evoking a sense of wonder in the midst of the mundane. Both the images from nearly a century ago and those taken today give a sense of wonder and freedom that may not always be afforded to the people of that time. It’s a welcomed reminder that we truly are only inhibited by the limitations we set upon ourselves.
Forefathers UrbanExploration

Photo by Harris & Ewing, 1917 Library of Congress

You can follow the source link for more images and to read about the serendipitous circumstances that uncovered these images. We’re glad that someone was willing to go down this research rabbit hole and bring us a piece of photographic history.