Where Was That Taken?: Using Google to Geolocate Photographs

While photographs are not our main medium at The Center for American War Letters Archives, we do receive tons, mostly from the First and Second World Wars. At times these photos have labelsthat brilliantly aid researchers in understanding the images and the experiences of the soldiers depicted. Often, however, the photographs exist in sleeves or with the letters they were sent with, and have no label written on the back, and no real context included. We can, at times, geolocate these photographs using the correspondence or service history of the soldier in question, but censorship and vagueness in their writing or other documents can make this very difficult. That is not to mention a lack of knowledge of every individual town or village in France, for example, let alone the changes of these places over time. That is where the fun part begins and an educational opportunity opens up for students and researchers using a unique method. 

We discovered that Google Earth’s 3D function allowed us to geolocate photographs—identifying not only the city or town shown,, but the exact vantage point of the photographer. Using correspondence, or if lucky, using labels, we can determine a general location where a soldier might have been, and then use the image to pinpoint landmarks, buildings, rivers, mountains, etc. Using Google Earth, we can zoom in and out, reposition the camera angle, and determine precise landmarks.

Courtesy of the Center for American War Letters Archives (2019-060-w-r Unknown sailor First World War photo album).

One example shows the town of Bordeaux, France. The photograph, taken during the First World War by an unknown sailor, is part of a larger photo album of hundreds of landscapes, cityscapes, and people. The sailor attempted to order the photographs in chronological bunches, but not in any complete, linear fashion, as evidenced by repeating locations and events at different spaces in the album. This photo contains some labeling, but I was curious as I was processing the collection about how the photographer captured the picture from that height. What was he doing there? 

Copyright Google, Imagery 2020 and TerraMetrics, Map data 2020.

Using Google Earth’s 3D feature to search the city of Bordeaux,  I was able to find certain landmarks, such as the spire in the middle of the frame. Once I located this spire, it was a matter of getting it to match the photo and the surrounding buildings. What I found was that the photo had much to do with bell towers. This view overlooks the Grosse Cloche bell tower over an 18th century jail attached to Saint Eloi Church. The spire in the frame was the bell tower of the Saint Michael Basilica (Fléche Basilique Saint-Michel). From analyzing the Google Earth 3D view, I found that this photograph must have been taken from the top of the Tour Pey Berland, a gothic bell tower situated beside the eleventh century Cathédrale Saint-André. 

A Google search of Tour Pey Berland easily found a modern day replica of this very angle on Imgur: https://imgur.com/r/CityPorn/Jl0OAe8.

Photographs of Bordeaux show striking consistency of physical features over time, despite the ravages of two world wars. Photographs of cities like Dresden, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki, however, tell quite a different story. To varying degrees, geolocation allows researchers to contextualize a soldier’s experience spatially—where were they and what were they experiencing in that place and time? What buildings were still standing? How has the cityscape or landscape changed? Using photographs to place personal stories within a larger context is important to understanding our collections.

Andrew Harman, MA, CA

Archivist, Center for American War Letters Archives

Leatherby Libraries, Chapman University