Another Country

26th September 2018

The Retronaut website collates fascinating photos from the past, like the one above, taken at a 1930s Goodwood race meeting. James Collard meets its founder, Wolfgang Wild.

1207295.jpg

IT’S THE PEOPLE WHO really pull you into the photos on the Retronaut website. A smart young woman about town, looking a bit cross at being snapped; a handsome face that somehow stands out in a group portrait; or a likeness captured as someone goes about their day in Soho… Or rather, went about their day. The smart young woman, for example, is in a Retronaut “capsule” on street-style in London, 1905-08. The handsome face might be that of an Austro-Hungarian POW in World War I; while the passerby was photographed by Bob Hyde, a photographer who shot London in the 1960s. For Retronaut, as the name suggests, is a website all about the past – but designed to make us look afresh at the past. Or as its founder, Wolfgang
Wild, would put it, not so much the past: “Because the people in these pictures didn’t think of themselves as living in the past. These are just other nows.”

The people in these pictures didn’t think of themselves as living in the past. These are just other nows.

There are lots of other nows on the Retronaut site. The peasants of Pre-Revolutionary Russia, shot in vivid colour by photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, at the behest of the last Tsar. Or, closer to home, Covent Garden in the 1970s, when it was still a market, not a retail and tourist destination. There it is, complete with porters lugging crates of fruit and veg, its handsome buildings looking a little dowdy and rough around the edges, the way London often did back then, before the capital acquired all that Nineties and Noughties gleam and polish.

Or photographs of British sailors from World War I – only these British sailors aren’t the ruddy-faced old tars we might expect, like the sailor pictured on an old packet of Player’s, because they’re all black. Or my favourite capsule, which is a series showing World War II gunners at play – only weirdly, inexplicably, but deliciously, these soldiers are all in drag. Quite convincing drag, actually. But surely this isn’t our perception of British soldiery at wartime – our Finest Hour spent cross-dressing, indeed.

The colourised version of the 1938 black-and-white photo of a Mrs Ulrica Murray Smith taken at Goodwood.

The colourised version of the 1938 black-and-white photo of a Mrs Ulrica Murray Smith taken at Goodwood.

But these kinds of surprises are stock-in-trade for Retronaut. It’s a bit like a joke, Wild explains, with a set-up line, and the punchline that subverts it. “We have a version of the past in our heads,” and when we’re confronted with something that doesn’t fit that, we’re thrown. “And at that moment of disruption, the barrier between the past and now seems almost to disappear. Time collapses.”

Wild, who founded the Retronaut site in 2011, grew up fascinated by the idea of time travel. “As a child I’d been obsessed with the idea of going back in time, starting with Bagpuss, when you see all those Edwardian figures and then suddenly it all comes to life in colour.” The past is another country, they say, and for Wild, that’s precisely what makes it “exotic and exciting”. And it’s Retronaut’s mission to communicate that excitement.

And at that moment of disruption, the barrier between the past and now seems almost to disappear. Time collapses.

Retronaut began with a loan from Wild’s mother – and a set of photographs taken in London in the 1940s, in colour. “I had drifted through my life until my late thirties,” Wild confesses. “I tried out all kinds of different things: I worked in publishing, I was a teacher, I did some training consultancy, I sang in a band... But none of it ever stuck. I was always searching, but never found my niche.” His wife, meanwhile, is an Oxford professor whose specialist subject is “the translation of the psalms from the Latin into Medieval English by female mystic writers. So she has this thing, but I never seemed to have my thing.”

But something his wife said after Wild had lost yet another job helped him find his thing and bring Retronaut about. As he recalls, his wife said, “Look, you’re clearly unemployable, so just go ahead and just do something you want to do.” Wild realised that over the years he had sought out images that for him, somehow had that startling, time-collapsing quality. And so, with that loan from his mother and this idea in his head, Wild launched his Retronaut site in 2011 and started putting up images.

“For the first few weeks, no-one was looking at anything, other than me and my mum. And then suddenly one image went viral – London in the 1940s in colour – and we got 30,000 hits.” Wild uses the very analogue analogy of “hit singles” to describe these moments when an image he’s discovered goes viral on social media. “Before long I was routinely finding material that went viral. I could look at any archive and quickly see what would work – all based on the fact that people have an internal map of reality, of the past, but our map is very partial when we look at the  past.” So the Retronaut rule is: “The more a photo doesn’t fit on our map, the more it will go viral.”

Wolfgang Wild

Wolfgang Wild

These hit singles are not the only kind of image he puts up on the site. Far from it. But they’re how the website built its cult following – and secured partnerships with picture agencies – first Mashable and now Top Foto. For while Retronaut is about the past, it couldn’t be more current in its use of social media – and the way Wild finds much of his content in the vast archives that have been digitised by museums, libraries and cultural institutions. “Museums have great material,” he explains, “but they’re not always good at identifying what might be cool, or at getting it out there.” There have also been Retronaut books – the book remains his preferred way of displaying photography – and he has curated exhibitions in the UK and New York.

Wild has a particular passion for taking photographs from the past and showcasing them in colour, especially as colourisation of black-and-white photos has reached a level where you can produce an almost immaculate version of the original. “But even black and white photographs are interpretations,” he points out. “They’re not an empirical recording; it’s about that camera, and that time. And rather than wanting to recreate exactly what something looked like, what you’re aiming for is something believable, to add that sense of disruption.” A case in point: the image Wild colourised for Goodwood Magazine, of a sassy, snazzily dressed woman. Photographed at a Goodwood race meeting in the 1930s, she wouldn’t look out of place at Revival today. It’s all just a question of those other nows.

Visit retronaut.com to see more Goodwood photography

  • gettyimages-2695588.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Welcome to the future

  • sir-stirling-moss-fos-1995-james-bareham-mail-on-sunday.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Greatest Racing Driver of All Time

  • palace-gardens-tile.jpg

    Stories from the Estate

    Natural Selection