See the past like you wouldn't believe

‘The fascination of Retronauting’

- Jonathon Jones, Guardian


A Brief history of Retronaut


I started Retronaut because I couldn't build a time-machine. 

As a child, the idea of the past, of different versions of 'now', captivated me.  I was especially spellbound by the opening sequence of the BBC children's programme 'Bagpuss', in which the eponymous cloth cat was able to collapse time, transforming the sepia of the Edwardian world into a bright and colorful now.  

For me, the past seemed as exotic and enticing as another country, but one which I could never visit. Even in my earliest years, I felt a strange, almost uncanny, sense of loss, not only for my own past but for pasts I had never known. This feeling, and fascination, remained with me as I grew older, and I began to notice that certain old photographs had an interesting effect on me.  

Most old photographs 'fit' the internal map of the past that we carry around in our minds - a map made up of our memories and images we have seen.   But some photographs do not. Some pictures seem anachronistic, as though they cannot belong to the time from which they originate. As an example of this, many of us imagine the past in black and white - so when we see a colour photograph from the, 1940s - like the one on the left - 0r the 1920s, or even earlier - it doesn't fit on our map. 

When I saw such pictures, my mind did a kind of "double-take" - as though it wasn't quite sure what time it was seeing, or even what time it was in. The pictures had the power to collapse my mental map of time, changing 'the past' into 'another now'.  And this 'double-take', a sort of temporal dislocation - this felt, to me, like time-travel. 


How to be a RetronauT

1949: Looking up Shaftesbury Avenue from Piccadilly, London (Chalmers Butterfield)

Over the years, I mentally stored away these pictures, and I started to hunt for them too, in old bookshops, in books in charity shops, and later online. One day, at the end of 2009, I was showing my collection on my computer to a friend in a cafe in Royal Oak, London.  "You know, you should start a blog" he said. 

I had no experience online at the time, and I googled where to start. The general advice seemed to be that 'How to...' type blogs worked well - how to look after yo8ur lawn, how to groom your dog, etc. I decided my blog would be about how to go back in time when you don't have a time-machine. Which was too wordy. I needed a name, but not just 'time-traveller' - I didn't want to visit the future. What is the noun for a 'backwards time-traveller'? Well, I reasoned, if an 'astronaut' goes into space, maybe a 'retronaut' goes back in time.  I called the blog 'How to be a Retronaut'.


"What is the noun for a 'backwards time-traveller'?"


I launched it - if you can call it that - at the beginning of January 2010. I had no visitors at all - but I found it enormously rewarding to be able to take a picture and display it online. A very basic form of curation, but for me, deeply satisfying. 

Then, three weeks after I started Retronaut, on January 28th, 2010, the site got 30,000 hits in one day.  One of the posts - the London Kodachromes by Chalmers Butterfield - had been picked up by Reddit and had gone viral. Retronaut grew from there.


The S.P.E.E.D. Formula

Over the next four years, with the help of my friends Amanda Uren and Simon Mallindine, I posted around 40,000 Retronautic photographs onto the site in 'capsules' - small collections, each chosen to disrupt the viewers sense of the past. The capsules would routinely go viral, and it began to occur to me that there must be a reason for this.  

I decided to try to figure out what this reason was, and to see whether it was possible to codify my approach so that it could be applied to any collection of archive photographs. I wanted to reduce it down as much as possible to a simple formula. The result was  S.P.E.E.D.  Using the five letters of the formula, I could look at any old photograph and accurately predict whether it would engage with an audience.  The higher a photograph's S.P.E.E.D. score, the more likely it would be a viral hit. 


Guest Curator

During 2013 and 2014, Retronaut was guest curator at Europeana, the European Digital Museum, Library and Archive. Using the S.P.E.E.D. formula, I showcased daily capsules of Europeana content, with interesting results.  Europeana and I wrote a report about it, 'Disrupting History', which you can download here.

I was guest curator  also at Northumberland Museums and Archives, culminating in a six-month physical exhibition at Woodhorn Museum of around 25 pictures from the Northumberland Archives. The Retronaut Woodhorn project was shortlisted for the Museums and Heritage Awards for Excellence 2015.  You can download Woodhorn's report on the project here.


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Mashable

At the beginning of 2014, I was approached by Jim Roberts, the then-Executive Editor at the American-based site, Mashable. The result of this conversation was that Mashable exclusively licensed Retronaut's content, brand and curatorial approach, from 2014 to 2017.

Mashable allowed me to recruit a full-time "under-Retronaut", Alex Q. Arbuckle, and I taught Alex the  S.P.E.E.D. formula. Across this three year period, Retronaut's content was the most shared and the most viewed content on the entire Mashable site.

Mashable renewed the licensing deal in September 2017 for a further two years - but then axed Retronaut, together with all their other external partnerships, in October 2017, immediately prior to their sale to US magazine publisher Ziff Davis.


Retronaut's New York

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In February 2016, Retronaut's pop-up show Retronaut's New York opened on 5th Avenue, New York, at Premier Exhibitions. Produced by Christoph Scholz at SC Exhibitions, and featuring a 'timescape' of Time Square by Jordan Lloyd, the show featured 30 panoramic photographs of New York at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. 

The exhibition was opened by Josh Sapan, CEO / Chair of AMC Networks and author of panoramic photograph book "The Big Picture".


Books

In 2014, National Geographic published Retronaut's first book.  Two further books were published by Ilex in 2016, and in 2017, Unbound published 'The Paper Time Machine', a collaboration between Retronaut and colorist Jordan Lloyd of Dynamichrome. An exhibition of 20 of the pictures from The Paper Time Machine' ran at Waterstones, Gower Street, London, from October 2017 to February 2018.

 

MEURAL

In September 2016, Retronaut became a curating partner for Meural's digital canvas, showcasing a new collection each month under the Retronaut brand.


- Wolfgang Wild