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Q&A: Meet "Time Frame" Photographer Dustin Snipes

You may not recognize his name, but you’re likely familiar with the work—and left palm—of Dustin Snipes. He’s the photographer whose hand can be seen holding up vintage snap shots in our monthly Time Frame column, a photo-within-a-photo tribute to how Los Angeles is changing. Snipes tells us how he approaches the series and what it has taught him about L.A.

Once you know where and what you’re shooting for the month, what’s the process like?
Usually I’ll look at Google Street View to see what’s there now. So much has changed. Then I’ll look at an app on my iPad that tells me where the sun where will be and when. I rely on that a lot because I try to match up the shadows in the old and new shots. Then I go out to the site. I don’t ever think I’m going to be able to get the final shot that day.

How long does it typically take to get a good shot?
It can take anywhere from an hour to four, but typically I’ve spent a day or two scouting first, too. It takes some time to line up as many parts of the shot as possible. I’m shooting with a really wide lens and sometimes the shots from the past are taken with a different focal length lens, so lining up the perspective is pretty hard. I’m there waving my hand around in front of me and people are staring at me. One out of every three times people come and ask if they can hold the picture in the picture for me, which is really nice, but obviously I need to have my hand in the frame. At first I tried to get the picture with no tripod, but I have to use one; otherwise my right arm is moving and my left arm is moving and the lining up of the buildings becomes impossible. Sometimes I have to bring something to mount the older picture on so it doesn’t blow in the wind. Sometimes I have to trim the old picture to make everything line up.  

What’s the biggest challenge of the assignment?
Well, I want pedestrians in the shot, but I don’t want them looking at me. I use such a wide lens and it sees so much on the sides that people don’t think they’re in the picture. That’s hard: making sure cars and people are in the right positions, without staging anything. I try to stay back and shoot it as it is.

Has shooting Time Frame for the magazine changed the way you think about the city?
I see a lot more of it and I see a lot more historical places. I get to see the city in a different way because I’m looking at every detail of a building or place. It’s cool knowing all the extra history.

The job has you traveling all over the city. Have you discovered any new favorite spots?
I’ve discovered a lot of new places. I have definitely taken people back to the places I have taken photos at for the series, and I know that when I go shoot things downtown I always go to Cole’s and The Varnish to eat and get a drink after.