Taylor Dahl, a recent Brigham Young University advertising graduate, had never been very interested in family history.
But shortly after he returned from his two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Birmingham, England, in December 2014, something led him to ask his father for old family pictures.
He found a box of thousands of old slides with pictures from his grandfather’s life, some of which hadn’t been seen in 50 years. His grandfather, Paul Eugene Dahl, died while Taylor Dahl was on his mission.
“I was just fascinated from the beginning,” Dahl said about the pictures. “They’re just so beautiful, especially the fact that I didn’t know my grandfather was even into photography.”
Dahl, a photographer himself, said he was absolutely enthralled with the old photographs. He was so enthralled that, after a few years of preparation, he traveled around Europe recreating 59 of his grandfather’s photos, standing exactly where his grandfather stood in 1950.
A labor of love
Shortly after finding the photos, Dahl asked his parents’ permission to take the slides with him to BYU, where he undertook the project of scanning each photo individually at BYU’s Family History Library. It took him a year of slowly scanning the photos to finish the process.
When Dahl was scanning the photos, the thought first occurred to him to recreate the photos. He was especially intrigued by 59 of them, which his grandfather took while traveling around Europe in 1950 after completing his mission in Finland.
However, Dahl said it just seemed like an unrealistic “pipe dream” at the time.
“The thought kept coming back to me,” Dahl said. “I was like, ‘That’s just crazy. I’m not going to make a trip to Europe just to do that, as awesome as it would be.’”
About a year later, however, BYU’s advertising program announced a study abroad trip to Europe. Dahl, an advertising student at the time, realized many of the cities he was going to visit for the trip were cities where his grandfather had taken photos.
“Once I realized I was gonna go to Europe, I was like, ‘I’m gonna retake as many of these as I can,’” Dahl said.
After Dahl committed to the study abroad program and knew he would get the chance to recreate the photos, he began the most painstaking part of the process: using Google Street View to find the exact location of each photo, all the way down to identifying the exact coordinates to capture the right angle.
“That was actually really fun,” Dahl said. “I kind of felt like a detective in a way, using Google Street view to find these places.”
According to Dahl, it would sometimes take hours of research to find the location for a single photo, but it was rewarding to finally find one of the locations. He compared it to the joy that people feel when they’re doing family history and finally find a name they’ve been researching.
Recreating the photos
With his preparation completed, Dahl finally recreated the pictures in the summer of 2017. After the study abroad trip ended, he stayed in Europe an additional two weeks so he could recreate more photos. He backpacked from Amsterdam to Rome and ultimately recreated photos in eight countries.
For the sake of authenticity, Dahl purchased the exact model camera his grandfather had used, an Argus C3. He found the name of the camera while reading in one of his grandfather’s mission journals.
“It was more fun that way, doing it with the same camera in the same places trying to retake the exact photo,” Dahl said. “It’s just fun.”
Dahl said the camera was around 70 years old, so he wasn’t sure the photos would turn out well. Just in case, he took backups with his phone.
“I shoot on film as well, but a lot of the cameras I use are a lot more sophisticated and modern. This thing is ancient,” Dahl said. “But a lot of the photos turned out really great, and I was really pleasantly surprised.”
Sometimes it was impossible to take photos in the exact spot where his grandfather stood, simply because the world had changed in the 67 years between the photos. However, in many instances, Dahl knew he was right where his grandpa had been.
“He’s one of those people that I really look up to and respect and admire and love and want to follow his footsteps,” Dahl said. “In a way, symbolically, I was following in his footsteps right then in this way.”
Despite being one of many grandchildren, Dahl said he always had a great relationship with his grandfather. His grandfather lived in California, while Dahl lived in Gilbert, Arizona, but they would see each other several times a year.
“I always really respected him. He’s just a really great man, and I couldn’t say enough good things about him,” Dahl said. “He was a great father to my father, and, in turn, my dad was a great father to me. I just have a lot of respect for him and the life that he lived.”
However, his relationship with his grandfather changed in many ways after his project. In addition to scanning thousands of photos and recreating 59 of them, Dahl also read many of his grandfather’s journals.
“It was a really cool, deeper insight, because I only knew my grandfather as an older man,” Dahl said. “It was cool to see him how he was when he was around my age, and see how he thought and how he saw the world.”
Dahl also enjoyed reading about his grandfather’s mistakes and how he overcame them. He was only familiar with his grandfather as a righteous patriarch who worked for the LDS Church his entire adult life as an institute director.
“Just to hear that he was human and just like me was very humanizing,” Dahl said. “Even though I knew him, it was a whole new facet that I discovered through the process.”
Besides everything Dahl learned about his grandfather throughout his “Grandpa’s Photos” project, it changed the way he viewed family history. According to Dahl, he always thought family history was limited to indexing and searching for names, activities that weren’t as appealing to him as a creative person.
“Prior to this, I really hadn’t done any family history work, but this is a way I was able to really be passionate about something and cultivate that relationship beyond the grave,” Dahl said. “Even though I didn’t do any saving ordinances for him, it’s a way of honoring him.”
Dahl said this project was just the beginning of his involvement with family history work. He plans on recreating photos until he’s recreated all of them. Then, he said, he’ll try to find pictures of his other grandparents.
“Not everyone’s going to find a box of thousands of slides, but I think there are other ways that people can connect with their ancestors and their loved ones, even if it isn’t through pictures,” Dahl said. “A lot of people just view family history as saving ordinances, which at the end of the day is probably the most important part, but I think really it’s so we can grow closer to our family tree. For me, this is just a very real way that I can do that.”
The 60th photo
Dahl traveled to eight European countries and five capital cities to recreate his grandfather’s photos. However, his favorite photo of the project — the 60th and final photo — was taken in Provo, on the lawn outside BYU's Eyring Science Center.
The photo and its recreation show both Taylor Dahl and Paul Eugene Dahl, his grandfather, on BYU graduation day. It’s the only photo in the project that includes photos of themselves rather than places they visited.
“I think that’s the one picture that connects me to him in the project,” Dahl said. “My grandpa hardly took any pictures of himself, and I kind of do the same thing, but I think that’s the connection at the end of the all.”
Dahl intends to publish a book of all the photos, even if it’s just for his family members to enjoy. He said the final page will be their graduation pictures, side by side (in which you can hardly tell the two apart).
“That’s what the project is all about,” Dahl said. “A way that I could connect with my grandpa.”