Retronaut: A wild journey aboard a photographic time machine

in Nonfiction by

H.G. Wells had his time machine, and Doctor Who has his TARDIS, but now comes a book that actually allows you, the reader, to do the time-travelling.

The book is Retronaut: the Photographic Time Machine, a collection of 350 images that, in the words of its author, “is about seeing the past through different lenses.” Think of the book as a compilation of the most delightful and astonishing pictures from the massive photo album of our shared worldwide cultural heritage.

The photos come from Retronaut.com, a website celebrating some of the most intriguing, amazing and amusing images ever captured on film.  Retronaut (both the book and the website) are the creation of Chris Wild, a British blogger who describes himself as having “a pathological nostalgia” for the past as a youth.

“I grieved not only for my own rapidly receding childhood, but also for the years, the ‘pasts,’ that I would never experience,” Wild writes. “The past seemed as real to me as the present, as real as another country. But unlike another country, its borders were closed.”

 

Twenty-five years later, in a discount bookshop, Wild found himself enthralled by a book of color photographs of Britain taken during World War II. “This was the first time I had seen color photographs of the 1940s and even earlier decades,” he writes. “These pictures did not look like the past as I understood it. Instead they looked like ‘now’—my ‘now,’ this ‘now.’ The color had wiped away the years, just as polish wipes away the tarnish on a ring . . . The images tore tiny holes in my internal map of the past. This tearing was incredibly powerful.”

Over the next six years, Wild found himself on an odyssey of discovery as he sought out old photos, both black-and-white and color, that “were just as effective in ripping up my time map: technological prototypes that were way ahead of their time, predictions for the year 2000 imagined in the year 1900, and invitation to the launch of the Titanic, Martha Stewart before her empire, the Eiffel Tower half-built. I was discovering a new, brilliantly colorful past of high resolution, high contrast, low noise—and lots and lots of detail.

In 2010, Wild began sharing these photos through a blog he titled Retronaut (meaning, literally, “someone who travels back”). Today, more than a million people a month visit the site to journey into the past via tens of thousands of carefully cultivated photographs that, according to Wild, share one thing in common: each one has the power to warp the viewer’s sense of time.

Need some examples? How about CompuServe’s 1982 ad for what it envisioned as a vital home service of the future? In an antiseptic room that looks like a set from a cheesy sci-fi movie stand a man and woman dressed in white jumpsuits. “Someday,” the ad reads, “in the comfort of your home, you’ll be able to shop and bank electronically, read instant updated newswires, analyze the performance of a stock that interests you, send electronic mail across the country, then play Bridge with three strangers in L.A., Chicago and Dallas.” Finally, the ad tells us, “Welcome to someday.”

Mind not sufficiently blown? How about a picture of President Lyndon Johnson driving guests across a lake in an amphibious car? Or a photo of George Washington’s false teeth (ironically, made with real human teeth)? Or the image of a worker dangling from a line while standing on the tip of Washington’s nose as it’s carved into Mt. Rushmore?

Mount Rushmore
1936: Climbing Lincoln’s Nose

Go ahead, keep paging through the book. I dare you to try to stop. There’s a picture of the check-out card from a library copy of The Courageous Heart, signed out in 1948 by a 13-year-old Elvis Presley. There’s a photo of Boris Karloff, in full costume and makeup, laughing as he slices his birthday cake on the set of Son of Frankenstein. There’s an image of the real Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers (made famous in The Sound of Music) as they rehearse a tune. And there’s a photo of technicians tending to Bruce, the 25-foot mechanical shark who terrified the world in the 1975 classic Jaws.

Maria Von Trapp
1905 – 1987: The real Maria von Trapp

Looking for something a bit more historical? How about Adolph Hitler taking a moment off from being history’s greatest monster so that he can play with a young deer? Or a peek at the plaster death masks of composer Felix Mendelssohn and writer Walt Whitman? Or the only known authenticated photograph of the legendary outlaw Billy the Kid?

The book goes on and on. From the inspiring (women who masqueraded as men to fight in the Civil War) to the prophetic (a young Bill and Hillary Clinton on the campus of Yale University) to the absurd (Lee A. Merlin, “Miss Atomic Bomb” of 1957), Retronaut is an enthralling journey that makes the past feel like, in Wild’s words, “just a different version of today.”

So who needs a TARDIS? We’ve got Retronaut. And if every picture is worth a thousand words, then this time machine is a photographic page-turner that sends the reader careening through the past on an extraordinary and entertaining journey through history.

Michael Ruscoe is a writer, teacher, and musician living in Southern Connecticut. He is the author of the novel, "From the Stray Cat Files: You’ll Do Anything," the anthology, "Baseball: A Treasury of Art and Literature," and numerous educational texts. An instructor at Southern Connecticut State University, Ruscoe is also lead singer and songwriter for the indie band Save the Androids! In his spare time he earns karma for his next life by ardently following the New York Mets. The proud father of two children, Ruscoe also cares for and supports a pair of goldfish, who, in all honesty, are not very good conversationalists.

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