Mike Ferguson captures Providence from time to time

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Providence has a rich history etched in almost every corner of the city, waiting to be discovered. Mike Ferguson, who moved to Providence with his family in August 2019, is doing just that: digging into the city’s archival memory to capture its transformations, one historic photograph at a time.

His Instagram account, @pvdnowandthen, features photos of Providence today as well as photos of the same location taken decades ago. He started the project in November 2020, as COVID-19 cases began to rise in Providence.

“I was walking a lot more when the pandemic was at its worst, so that definitely helped,” Ferguson said. “Walking around the city, I was really curious about the history of everything I was looking at, so I started…collecting old postcards of Providence.”

But he soon realized that there weren’t enough old postcards available, and they weren’t reasonably priced.

“Fortunately, I discovered the Providence Public Library’s online photo archive,” he said. “There are also various other archives that I’m just beginning to get into.”

With a natural curiosity about the history of the towns he calls home, Ferguson was “blown away” by Providence’s storied past, from its evolving architecture to the Providence River.

He collected more than 20,000 old photos of Providence from the archives — a bountiful source to draw from, he said. “It’s in my nature to be able to watch this stuff…for hours and hours and hours without getting bored or distracted, so (the archive) never ceases to fascinate me,” Ferguson added.

Ferguson takes different approaches to organizing his project. Sometimes, when he comes across a building or street that captures his interest, he will later scour the archives to find matching images of the same location. Other times, he reverses the curation process. “I come across a photo that I haven’t used yet and I recognize it, and I’m going to put that on my walking diary,” he said. “So every day I usually have a picture (and) a place I want to go.”

He has come to know the city extremely well since he started the project. “When I started, I had no idea what I was looking at,” Ferguson said. Now, it’s rare that he finds a photo of Providence – no matter how old – that he doesn’t recognize.

He is particularly fond of the area he calls the “Weybosset Curve”, which stretches from Westminster Street to Dorrance Street. The winding rue de Weybosset is lined with old buildings that Ferguson finds interesting. Even the newer buildings that alternate with older architecture seem to add to the story the city tells, he said.

Having such an intimate and historically rooted knowledge of the metropolis inevitably changes the way he experiences its various parts, Ferguson explained. Waterplace Park, for example, belies traces of the giant saltwater creek that stood in the same spot when Providence was founded, he said. Despite echoes of older landmarks, he observes that the entire waterfront of the river has changed dramatically over the years.

Ferguson views his effort to capture Providence through time as a puzzle he must solve, matching the images to locations in the city. But it’s also a journey through time that he likes to share with his audience. “It’s not always possible to make images closely resemble each other in terms of perspective,” he said, “but when you can do that and people click between the two, it feels like time travel.”

Xinyu Yan ’24 values ​​this nostalgic element of the project. “I love looking at those old photos and thinking about how life was so different back then, and if we could have something more rooted in (the city’s) history in future developments,” a- she declared.

Concentrator in urban studies, she is also interested in the historical evolution of Providence. “It’s really interesting to see how the landscape of Providence has developed over time, as it used to be a very industrial city, but now presents itself as the creative capital.”

Evan Stein ’24, who started following Ferguson’s account about a year ago, likes to see what the places he walks through daily were like in the past, he said.

Stein acknowledges that the project also has greater significance. He said: “Providence has such a deep – and in some cases heavy – history that it is important to be aware of it.”

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