Traveling Through Time in Providence

Not long after I started my Instagram account, @pvdnowandthen, I became curious as to why some posts were more popular than others. I wasn’t so much interested in catering to the cause as I was in just understanding it. I myself am just as fascinated by the mundane street corner as I am with our iconic Industrial Trust “Superman” building. But for others, some “now and then” photo pairings are more interesting than others.

I arrived at the following theory, and it is just that, a theory.

Photo pairings that evoke a sense of time travel seem to be more popular than those that do not (with a few exceptions). When is a sense of time travel conveyed? I believe it is a combination of recognition and transformation.


First, there must be familiarity. The building or scene must be more or less recognizable in both the old photo and the new. If either photo or image in the pairing is unfamiliar to the degree that the observer has trouble identifying with it, the presentation might be interesting and informative, but the sense of time travel that causes people to linger over the post is diminished.


Second, although recognition seems key, there must be at the same time a sense of transformation, which creates the feeling of movement, of moving through time. If there is little in the way of transformation; that is, if the old photo could almost be a new photo that I’ve changed to black and white or sepia, there is no spell, no evocation of time travel.

The most common elements triggering a sense of transformation are what I think of as “time stamps,” and the most common time stamps are transportation, people, and surroundings. Many buildings in Providence look virtually the same today as they did 150 years ago to all but the closest observer. But if the new photo features a Toyota Camry parked at the curb and the old photo has a horse and buggy, voila, transformation. Likewise, if there are people in the photo, their clothing and grooming will contribute to a sense of transformation. Finally, the surrounding buildings, signage, and infrastructure can contribute to a sense of transformation.

A high degree of familiarity combined with significant transformation results in time travel.

A good example is the pair of photos of the Superman building above. There is a high degree of familiarity with this building, especially from this distance and with a fair replication of the perspective. But the absence of the Fleet Center building just to the east makes Turk’s Head part of the skyline from the north, not something you’re used to seeing unless you’ve been around awhile. So, there is both absence and presence in terms of transformation. Then, the presence of the train, dominating the foreground where the river should be (or close enough) is almost shocking because although trains were once prominent in the area between Union Station and Smith Hill, they are virtually invisible today.

In the combination of photos below, we have the opposite result. The current version of this building on Mathewson might be vaguely familiar, but the Westminster Congregational Church, which is now half buried inside the current building and half demolished, is not familiar at all, outside of photographs. The degree of transformation is very high, but identification is low, so no feeling of movement, no time travel. The image of the church is too unfamiliar. It’s still interesting and good information to have, but it’s not really an experience, it’s just data.

Even a relatively subtle change to surroundings, as in the photos of Union Station below, can cause a mental double-take. The building looks the same, but in the old photograph there is a road where we are used to seeing an ice skating rink or plaza. The presence of a residential tower in the distance adds to the transformation.

City Hall is very familiar, so there is a high level of identification. Almost anyone in Providence would easily identify either photo as City Hall. And yet there is a strong sense of transformation because the Hotel Dorrance to the left has been replaced by the Woolworth Building today and the horse trolley is now a bus. Whenever there is a trolley in an old photo I will try, if possible, to have a bus in the new photo to add to this sense of transformation happening right before your eyes. The comment I hear most often about my Instagram account is that people like it when I do this. There might be other ways to explain this, but I think it’s because it feels like time travel. (Note, close observers will see that City Hall itself has also changed. We now have more windows on the fourth floor, where we have also lost the gable and column element in the center of the fourth floor.)

Of course this is all possibly a bit of gobbledygook, stories I tell myself to explain why some posts are more popular than others. In any case, this bit of analysis, if analysis “is the word I mean to use,” allows me to predict with some accuracy which photo combinations will receive the most engagement.

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