Helsinki Yesterday & Today

Moi, Laura! Let’s hear a bit about your background.

I’m Laura Boxberg, I’m from Eastern Finland. I studied and graduated in Turku as a historian (I have a master’s in history), then moved to Helsinki in 2013.

The move to the BIG city.

(laughs) In comparison, Turku is very small; you can walk everywhere. And at first Helsinki seemed to me like a, not huge but… distant place, because I didn’t know the city really well.

How did your photographic juxtapositions come to be?

As a historian I’ve always been interested in old photos, and architecture. When I first moved to Helsinki I was participating in this sort of training, through my work, that studied open access databases for cultural use. Through this I learned about the photographic collection at the Helsinki City Museum, which consists of this huge, public database of digitized Helsinki photos. Searching by parameters like address or year, you find these amazing photos that you can download in any size you want (for the web, or even for print). And since it’s open-source you can use the photos as long as you credit the photographer and the source, the Helsinki City Museum.

Since I found this resource, I couldn’t stop thinking what could I do with it. And last year I thought “what if I create photographic comparisons of places as they used to be, with what they look like today?” That’s how it all began.

What’s the process like?

While I’m on the bus on my way to work, for example, I browse the database with my phone. When I find a photo of a place I’m interested in I download it on my phone, and then I go there and take a similar shot. As easy as that. Then of course my research begins, trying to find what houses are those in the picture, how have they changed, and so on. I have a day job so I don’t have much time or resources for an in-depth analysis, but I usually find enough history online—there are a lot of resources out there on the web.

Is it easy to recreate the original shot, from the same angle?

It depends. Often it’s not possible because of new roads, trees, and other stuff. Things change a lot in 120 years!

What was you motivation for this project?

To learn and to share the knowledge. I myself don’t know much about the history of Helsinki, so it’s a way to learn. And then people who live in this city, who generally don’t consider “Where do I live? Where did my street come from? What has been here before me?” can get a surprising perspective.

Why did you chose Instagram for your project?

Because it’s such a user-friendly, easy platform for photos. Swiping is very addictive, you want to know more (and that’s good for the algorithm as well) so I’m using the peculiarities of the platform as a social media generator. Sometimes people who aren’t on Instagram ask me where can they see the photos, so I try to upload some of them to my website, but I focus mainly on IG because it’s easy for everybody, for the audience and for me.

I started in February 2020, and of course I didn’t know the global pandemic would happen, and we would be locked down in March and April. People were much more active online, which gave momentum to my project.

Instagram has also helped me reach younger folk—people under 30 have received it very well. This young blogger who recommended my account generated a lot of new followers, for example. They’re eager to learn things that I’m also learning. Of course older folk are following as well, and they often send me messages like “I remember living here, or when this was here, or that was there” and it’s super-nice to hear the behind-the-scenes stories from the people who have been here longer than I.

I see a lot of comments like “this looks ugly, I want to go back to the past!”

As a historian, I understand every generation of architects and city designers have their own idea of what looks good, so it’s not fair to criticize from the future looking back. But yes, often the current sight can be ugly. For example, this morning I was photographing near Central Station, and was surprised at the amount of visual noise: huge billboards, illuminated ads, trucks… Does good city space have to be so commercialized, for example? But I don’t usually take a stand saying something is better than the other. Of course I have my own opinions, but I try to maintain a neutral position. I feel people are entitled to their reaction, that’s totally fine and understandable. I’m happy that people are now appreciating the old stuff, that’s good. But as I said I try to be neutral. Other accounts focus more on buildings which have been torn down, for example, and the debate gets more heated. But this is not the place for that, this is a place for… seeing change. And I also like to show things which have been preserved as well. I try to do both, not only to show modern versus old. Also what has been there and will be there, hopefully for the next hundred years or more. I try to find balance, which is not easy.

Why not?

Because sometimes I want to say “You’re absolutely right! I hate this too!” (laughs) It’s interesting to notice both modern and old get negative comments, and that’s fine. People should have some sort of platform to discuss these topics.

It seems we love to tear down beautiful things and build new ugly ones.

I would like to think that when we design something for the next 200 years it should be able to earn its place, to stand on its own, for that amount of time without looking like it was made today. But tastes change, of course. For example, imagine the idea they had in the 60s, that Esplanadi was outdated. They really were saying “Tear it down! Make something modern!” They had both good ideas and bad ones, just like we do.

I also appreciate the preservation work that’s being done. People in the countryside are trying to restore old homes and schools. Like in this village where they bought an old wooden school, and it’s taken them twenty years to repair it, all by themselves. It’s a super-popular trend in Finland at the moment. In the 60s they would have torn down the whole thing! (laughs) I think it’s very valuable work, preserving history and re-using resources.

I guess it’s not only the aesthetic issue, but also a sense of nostalgia.

Yeah. People usually tend to like cities with old architecture, which is of course understandable. But for example I like Milano a lot, I think it’s super-cool. You know, the 60s style, and not only the historical city center. I really like that.

What about the Brutalism of Pasila?

Oh, I like Pasila, and Merihaka. They have their own atmosphere! But yeah, it’s not my role to voice my opinions. I research what has happened, and try to understand what choices have been made.

Do you think we’ll stop building high-tech glass boxes and go back to pretty architecture one day?

I think so. There are already nice examples of modern buildings that fit into the style of the neighborhood. For example in the Kaartinkaupunki area there’s nice, modern stuff that doesn’t really look modern. If you walk there and don’t pay attention you miss it, among the older architecture.

Isn’t it a pity that photography only goes back some 130 years?

Yes! But still, there’s 65.000 photos on the archive, and that’s a lot of database to, you know, dig from. It’d be lovely for people to go there themselves and find photos and do something with them. I appreciate the huge effort by those who’ve been doing the archival work. They deserve the credit for the years of effort. Now it’s up to us to use such a unique resource. Imagine if every city had a database like this!

Do you have to open an account to browse the collection?

You just go to the website and start searching. It’s super-open, free, and you can use everything. It’s made with public money, we have paid for it after all, so let’s use it! Old photos are lovely, sometimes you can see faces…

Have you seen in YouTube the colorized films from London and New York from early 20th century?

Those are incredible. They do the coloration process with AI, it’s amazing. To me, color looks more real than black and white, and AI does a great job.

What’s next for your project? A book, maybe an exhibition?

It’s a hobby, so for now I’ll just keep going. I would love to do a book, if I get the time! For now I’m sticking to the online format so people can see it wherever they live, in Turku, Ivalo, or anywhere in the world. For me, what’s most important is to make people aware of what was here before us, and that there will be something here after us.

Contemporary photos © 2021 Laura Boxberg. Archival photos copyright their respective photographers and the Helsinki City Museum. The amazing photographic database is here, and you can follow Laura’s work on Instagram, and on her website.