In 2018, the New York City Municipal Archives finished digitizing its long-awaited 1940 tax photographs collection, a cache of over 700,000 images of every tax lot in each of the five boroughs taken between 1939 and 1941. The massive undertaking began in the 1980s and spanned several decades, according to a blog post from the archives department.
"At that time it consisted of 2,047 strips of 35-mm black-and-white nitrate negative film each stored in its original metal canister," the blog post said.
Many thousands of dollars and hours of labor later, the collection was dubbed one of the most important research resources in the municipal archives. The only problem—some found that the process to find a specific photo was a bit cumbersome.
"You have to sort of go and reference a tax map, find the block and lot number you want, and then go back to the archive site and look it up," software engineer Julian Boilen told Inside Edition Digital. Boilen had been sent the link to the collection in 2018 and quickly recognized its potential.
"And it just seemed really clear to me that I just wanted to be able to explore freely, and it just seemed clear that something needed to be built where you get to sort of browse around," Boilen said.
Two years later, Boilen's idea is now a fully-fledged website called 1940s.nyc. Comparable to a vintage Google Street View, each of the archival photos are marked with a black dot on an interactive map of the city. The photos are also searchable by address.
Boilen, who created the project independently and mostly on the weekends, said most of the hard work was done by the Department of Records.
"What they did was they went in to scan every photo and then tagged it with the block and lot number that appears in the picture, as well as went back to old maps that are only on paper and found the addresses for a lot of these photos, that are mostly correct," Boilen said. Boilen was able to significantly speed up the process by automating it.
While the archivists updated the collection from film negatives to digital images, the taking of the original photos was itself considered "an important aspect of the modernization of tax assessments," according to a guide to the collection.
In 1938, the city's tax department requested federal funds from the Works Projects Administration to finance and staff a project that would create a new method of assessing taxes using property cards instead of ledgers. Each card featured a two by three inch photograph of the property, which became known as the "tax photo."
They were taken by 32 photographers, whom are "believed to have traveled in pairs, with one setting up the camera and taking the picture, and the other creating an index containing the block and film roll number," the guide says. "Little is known about these two-man teams, aside from they were hired by the WPA as 'skilled, non-manual' Class III workers."
In many of the photos, the photographers are visible, and the collection also includes a series of several thousand outtakes, Boilen said.
"I'm downloading all these photos and you wouldn't even see those on their website, unless you do what I did, which is run through them all and capture everything that's there," Boilen said "And then I'm like 'Wow, there's like 10,000 photos that are just like end of the film roll and whatever else,' Tax guy going to the zoo with his family, it's just kind of fun discovery."
The photos, taken for a seemingly mundane purpose, now offer a glimpse into a bygone era. But their inherent worth was predicted in the final report by the WPA, which noted that “…their value, if not immediately apparent, may appear some later time as has been true of countless limited, isolated research undertaking in the history of mankind."