Let’s Date! (Research Notes)

This post is about a few standard methods I often use for narrowing down the date that an undated photograph was taken. I’ll be using real-world examples: online image records of the City of Vancouver Archives which (as of the date of this posting) lack information pertaining to when the image was taken (its approximate date) and, typically, other information about the subject of the image. (1)

I’m going to identify three ways of narrowing down the date of a photograph. There are many other ways, of course; but these three have proven helpful to me in a number of cases. For dating clues, I’ll look at: movie billboards, identifying politicians (especially mayors), and using some basic knowledge of when a few major landmarks were constructed.

The Movies: A Great Way to Date!

One way of beginning to narrow down a date of a street image is to seek clues in movie theatre advertisements.


CVA 800-586 "Description in Progress"

CVA 800-586 “Description in Progress”

There are two theatre billboards in this image with visible ‘now playing’ movie titles: The Last Detail at the Vogue and Serpico at the Downtown Theatre (on Granville, north of Nelson). Both films were released in 1973, making it pretty likely that the image was taken in that year.

The location of this image is Granville Street downtown, looking northwards from near Nelson Street. As to what is going on in the image, it seems probable, given the approximate year earlier established, that it is the redevelopment in 1973-74 of a six-block stretch of Granville Street into ‘Granville Mall’, a pedestrian zone.(2)

Date a Pol?

All politicians like to pose for photos, but local politicians — and especially mayors — love photographic attention! This can be helpful in dating an image, if you can recognize the posing pol.


CVA 800-457 "Description in Progress"

CVA 800-457 “Description in Progress”

In this case, the fellow at the controls of the road de-construction machine (and looking a bit wide-eyed) appears to be Art Phillips (Mayor, 1973-77). It seems likely (to me, anyway) that this was taken as part of the earlier-mentioned Granville Mall development. That would put the image in the 1973-74 range.

Date a Pol: The Sequel (If Really Desperate, Date a Tory!)

Here is an example of where a political party advertisement can be used to date an image.


CVA 800-774 "Description in Progress"

CVA 800-774 “Description in Progress”

The camera is facing south on Granville Street downtown. Mid-image is a campaign poster atop House of Stein’s stereo shop (southwest corner Nelson/Granville) for a Vancouver Centre candidate by the name of Doug Davis. By looking up the electoral history of Vancouver Centre (a federal riding) on the Parliament of Canada site, we learn that Doug Davis ran for the Progressive Conservative party in only one election: in 1974.(3)

Dating the Big Guys!

This is a good example of a case where knowing the construction dates of a few landmark buildings in an area can help with dating an image.


CVA 800-879 "Description in Progress"

CVA 800-879 “Description in Progress”

I was initially at a loss as to where this image was taken. The urban landscape has been transformed over the years since this photo was made (for a contemporary view, see photo below). But, happily, there is one major landmark still present which helped orient me: the BCAA building on Broadway at Oak (at the crest of what I now recognize as the South False Creek/Fairview slope). What is going on in the foreground? It appears to be development of the South False Creek lands from their former light-industrial use to the present parkland (and, later, housing). That would put the date sometime in the early 1970s, I thought.

To pin down a date for the photo that was a little more specific, I needed to know some construction dates. Happily, those were not hard to come by. I knew that the BCAA building was built about 1972. What about other buildings in this area today that appear to be of a similar age, but are not visible in this early photo? Well, there is the arrowhead-shaped 805 W Broadway building (1974). Also, there is the Holiday Inn on Broadway between Oak and Cambie (1975). One or both of those structures would be visible in 800-879, if they were standing when the image was taken. Since they are not visible and since the BCAA building is, it seems pretty likely to me that this image was made in the 1972-73 period.

2014 view from a vantage not far from where  CVA 800-879 was probably taken. Photo by author.

2014 view from a place probably not far from where CVA 800-879 was taken. Visible at left is the 805 W Broadway structure. Neither the BCAA building nor Holiday Inn are visible in this photograph. By author. 


(1) The examples used here are online image records identified by CVA as having their description “in progress”. This appears to be the principal method by which CVA flags those records for which information is, as yet, incomplete.

(2) “Urban Renaissance and the Street” by Loretta Lees in Images of the Street: Planning, Identity and Control in Public Space, Nicholas R. Fyfe, ed. (NY: Routledge, 1998), p.247.

(3) Davis, was defeated by the incumbent, Liberal cabinet minister Ron Basford.

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6 Responses to Let’s Date! (Research Notes)

  1. Daniel says:

    Very interesting to hear about your investigative methods!
    I enjoyed the info about 805 Broadway – I’ve always liked that building.

  2. Sheila says:

    Great sleuthing, M! I remember when Granville Street was being “redone.” Around that time, my friends and I were fourteen and taking the bus from Burnaby to downtown on our own was heady stuff!!

  3. jmv says:

    One area where I’d love to see more supporting documentation is the City of Vancouver Street Banner program – occasionally, you’ll just be able to make out a banner in the background of a photograph, but without knowing what each year’s banners looked like, it doesn’t really help at all. From around 1958 (the official start of the program?) through about 1988, I know very little. Thereafter, I can begin to piece together who designed them, and occasionally will know what they looked like. The thing is, the CVA has a very large archive of this material, and they have banners for many of the years in storage; but they’re such awkward artifacts, its not something that can easily accessed in a single day. Seems to me like a great area of exploration for someone on the inside!

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