An Interview with Chris Wild, the Retronaut
Why did you decide to start Retronaut?
I started Retronaut because ever since I was a child I have wanted to go back in time. I couldn’t build a time-machine, but I found some old photographs had a curious effect on me. While most old pictures look like “the past,” some look like “now” – but a different version of “now.” When I saw such pictures, I felt as though the barrier between past and present had been dissolved – the closest experience I had had to time-travel.
How did the project evolve over the years?
I collected these pictures and a friend suggested I start a blog at the end of 2009. That blog was Retronaut. Since then, I have shared more than 30,000 images, and have now licensed Retronaut to the site Mashable. This has given me a great platform to work with. Retronaut’s first book was published last September, two more are on the way next year, and I am working on a Retronaut TV series.
How do you find photos to use?
I am able to find Retronautic pictures in almost any archive or collection. I use a special methodology to detect them. I describe it as a magnet – I wave it over the haystack that is the archive, and all the needles jump out.
What makes a good image for Retronaut?
There are five factors, but the most important one is that it must disrupt most people’s mental map of the past. We all have a map of the past, and it is sketchy, which Retronaut takes full advantage of. Retronaut shows images that appear to be anachronistic – that, to a greater or lesser extent, seem to not quite fit with the version of the past we have in our heads. They tear tiny holes in the map.
Why do you think Retronaut has been so successful?
Each Retronaut picture is a bit like a little gift to the viewer. People who look at Retronaut know that they are going to get the same experience, more or less, from every picture.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by photo archives?
I don’t think people are fascinated by photo archives. Very few people browse photo archives online, let alone in person. And why should they? They don’t know what they will find, and most of what they might find will be tedious, they believe, and they are usually right. What people are fascinated by, however, is the strangeness of time – they are fascinated by, in the words of G.M. Trevelyan: “the quasi-miraculous fact that once on this earth walked other men and women, now all gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone, like ghosts at cockcrow.”
When people view your digital time capsules, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
On the surface level, I want them to enjoy looking at the pictures, I want it to be a positive experience. Underneath that, I want the disruptive nature of the pictures to suggest to people that the past is not the past, it is all a part of “now.” It is not locked away and dead, but rather it is a curation of the present – and that they are able to curate their version of the present, and of themselves, in whatsoever way they wish.
Which photos have been most popular?
There is a huge variety, and I am not good at predicting what will strike a chord and what won’t. As an example of what can be popular, this week we curated some images of NYC’s Penn station before it was demolished, and this has been hugely popular. Other very popular posts have included colour photographs of Russia before the Revolution, and Jimi Hendrix making a cup of tea. (Not in Russia before the Revolution, obviously).
Which photos are your favourites?
I am obsessed with America, and especially New York, and the Old West. Some of my favourites are 1940s New York in colour, and also the pictures of Olive Oatman, a pioneer who was abducted by Native Americans and released many years later with a tattooed face.
Has the content of any of the archives that you’ve worked with particularly surprised you?
Perhaps the most surprising and startling image I have seen have come from the Thanatos Archive, a collection that focuses on Victorian death and mourning. Victorians would quite often photograph their children after they had died, as they hadn’t done so when the child was alive. Those pictures are very shocking, to say the least.
You’ve previously included images of the relocation of the temples at Abu Simbel on Retronaut, as well as others featuring Egypt. Have you long had a fascination with Egypt?
What is fascinating about Egypt is that for many people it IS archaeology. All nations have a long past, yet Egypt occupies a unique position in the public’s imagination, unlike any other. It’s a position that is also intrinsically connected to the romance of the 1920s and 1930s because of the prominence of Howard Carter. So there is a double layer of romance – a very specific discovery of treasure happening in what many people perceive as a more romantic time.
Your previous digital time capsules have covered many topics and locations, what particularly drew you to the Tutankhamun archive for this project?
I am British, and there is something very British about Tutankhamun and his discovery, which is a strange paradox, and I am drawn to strange paradoxes. This is partly a product of Empire – that the discovery was by an Englishman before the undoing of the British Empire. It is somewhat fitting that the archive should be in Oxford.
What can we expect from your search in the Tutankhamun archive?
I will be drawn, as I am with all Retronaut pictures, to the details that snap us out of seeing the past, and into the present moment that once existed. We are all very familiar with the story of the discovery of Tutankhamun – are there any images that show us something unexpected, even though it might be very familiar?
What challenges do you think working with the Tutankhamun archive will bring?
As with all archives, this archive will be extensive, and it will have been structured to allow anyone to explore everything – which can sometimes have the unintended by-product that nothing is explored. My approach will be from the opposite end – rather than starting with the archive and asking how can I get people to see how interesting this is, I will start with the viewer and ask what is in this archive that is interesting even if they have no interest in the archive at all.
The way archaeologists use photography to record every stage of uncovering a site must lend itself well to your work. Do you think in future you’ll be seeking out other archaeological excavations for your digital time capsules?
Actually, I think the opposite is the case. That particular form of photography, while obviously essential to the archaeologist, does not generally create images that resonate with a general audience. In fact, they can be a negative – primarily because such pictures conform with people’s expectations, and therefore have no disruptive quality. Equally, a significant advantage of working with the Tutankhamun archive is that the excavation is on people’s map of the past – and I can then find pictures that will tear a hole in that map. Other excavations often are not on people’s maps of the past, which means they are impossible to disrupt. Tutankhamun is, as we all know, unique.