Lecturer’s hobby combines love of history, photography
By Jeff Bleiler
When Lynn Carpenter sees an old photograph, she wonders two things.
What is the history of the building or location pictured, and what does it look like now?
She combines her love of history and photography to address both questions by visiting places where old photos have been captured, retaking them from the same vantage point and combining the images to create a then-and-now representation.
“I’ve not really had any formal training, and I’m not all that artistic,” said Carpenter, lecturer IV in ecology and evolutionary biology, and in molecular, cellular and developmental biology in LSA.
“I like trying to represent history and how things change over time.”
It all started when she fell in love with an abandoned family farm in northern Illinois nearly 30 years ago. On the wall of her Canton home hangs a framed landscape portrait of the property that she took, but Carpenter back then sought an old photo from when it was a working farm.
She managed to track down a family member who sent her an old photo with several people in it. Carpenter later returned to the property to take a photo from the same angle. She merged the two to create an image showing members of the Best family from generations ago silhouetted against the abandoned and aging buildings so many years later.
Since then, she’s completed about a dozen such photos, including several in Detroit. Carpenter has a particular affinity for documenting the city before and during its racial disturbances in 1967.
“That to me is fascinating, and people don’t consider what actually happened during the riots,” she said. “And I totally understand why they happened, people of color were not treated fairly by any means. However, the riots really negatively impacted Detroit and the people who lived there. If you go back to those places, there’s nothing there. All these buildings and businesses that were there are just gone.”
“I’m trying to find a way to convey an honest but not discouraging picture of what happened back in the day.”
Using Photoshop’s layers function, she has re-created a couple photos showing National Guard tanks rolling through Detroit streets and another with police and firefighters gathering at an intersection as a building burns.
Also among her collection is a photo of Detroit’s historic Eastown Theatre, its marquee promoting its grand opening with the 1931 Clark Gable movie “Sporting Blood,” but much of the building’s façade showing its age. The building has since been demolished.
She has re-taken photos of the Fisher Body Plant — with old cars lining the street on one side of the building and the adjacent side looking hollowed out and abandoned — and the Packard Automotive Plant. Multiple trips to the latter provided a near perfect overlay of old and new photos and also a pit stop of sorts when something caught Carpenter’s eye while she and her husband, Chris, a frequent assistant during these forays, were driving home.
Carpenter spotted a parked 1963 Studebaker Lark that needed restoring. After leaving their number with the owner, they received a call a couple weeks later asking if they were interested in buying it. They were.
Studebaker Larks were manufactured in South Bend, Indiana, where her husband is from, and many members of his family worked for the company in South Bend when that car was built.
“It’s likely one of his relatives touched this car back then,” Carpenter said. “(Taking pictures) has got us into restoring old cars, which is another hobby we’re doing together.”
Closer to U-M, where she has worked since 2009, Carpenter has her eyes on re-creating the huge mural in the Atrium of the Chemistry Building. While Carpenter thinks the historical picture is “cool,” it shows primarily white male students of yesteryear.
She spoke with members of the Chemistry Department about how to create a new photo that better represented the diverse student population of today, but the COVID-19 pandemic put a pause on that project.
“But that’s what I’d like to do next, show the diversity of the university and find some other old pictures of other buildings where the contrast is different and show how great and diverse it is today,” she said.
On a broader scale, Carpenter would like to re-shoot photos from various natural disaster sites. She and her husband have already visited and taken pictures at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania and Love Canal near Niagara Falls.
“Most people drag their spouses to romantic places, I take mine to the worst environmental disasters in human history,” she said with a laugh.
As part of research she is assisting at U-M, Carpenter plans to study how plants respond to radiation at nuclear disaster sites Chernobyl and Fukushima. She’ll have her camera — and her patient husband — with her.
“Nature does amazingly well without humans,” she said. “Nature always seems to rebound and do quite well, and things that are disasters to us have an interesting perspective when you look at it from nature’s point of view.”
What memorable moment in the workplace stands out?
Some of my favorite moments at U-M have been from being an adviser in addition to being an instructor. While teaching, I always love the “ah-ha” moments for my students when things finally click for them. While advising, my most favorite moments are when I catch my students right before they fall through the cracks to help them get back on track with a degree.
What can’t you live without?
My husband and friends/family.
Name your favorite spot on campus.
In summer, the Diag. In winter, the Atrium of the Chemistry Building.
What inspires you?
What are you currently reading?
“In the Garden of Beasts” by Erik Larson.
Who had the greatest influence on your career path?
My father (a college professor) and a former instructor of mine. I came from a small high school and I was not prepared for college at Eastern Illinois University. I signed up for my first physics course, and my instructor was quite mean and impatient. I found a friend in class, and eventually, I passed with an A-. I had to sign up for Physics 2 and was terrified. At the last minute, the department did a switch and I had a new instructor named Dr. Bergmann. She was amazing, and she had the patience of a saint. About 10 years later, I’m trying to finish my Ph.D. at the University of Illinois. I was really struggling to write my thesis, and I felt like I wanted to quit school. For some reason, I decided to go to a coffee shop I had never visited before. Just as I sit down, Dr. Bergmann walked in! I was so excited I ran up to her and told her who I was, and how she had impacted my career. She remembered me, and we sat down and had a wonderful chat. She was no longer teaching, but she did once again give me inspiration to finish my thesis and move on to my postdoctoral research position at the University of Notre Dame. Not only did she help me most every time I needed it, but she taught me so much about teaching, patience, and how to truly help people when they need it.
This story was originally published in The University Record.