“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” There are few lines so frequently quoted as L.P. Hartley’s opening to The Go-Between, and it is a sentiment very much borne out by the eclectic content of the Retronaut...
“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” There are few lines so frequently quoted as L.P. Hartley’s opening to The Go-Between, and it is a sentiment very much borne out by the eclectic content of the Retronaut blog. Founded in 2010 in Oxford by Chris Wild, the blog is a riotous foray into the visuals of the past, taking time travellers past Victorian children posing with storks, through the eccentricities of fashion over the 20th century – “When milady wishes a cigarette, she simply reaches up and plucks one from her hat” – to famous people such as JFK, Mother Teresa and Victoria Beckham pictured as they’ve rarely been seen before. Yet amid these oddities and delights, there are many hints that the past is less a foreign country than Hartley may have declared. As the site produces 1932 trendsetters fluttering their golden false eyelashes, a lady from 1951 flaunting her Old Street topknot and feather helmets from the 1960s that recall Raf Simons' delicate tulle and net headdresses at Dior S/S13 Couture, the Retronaut proves to be not just a marvellous link to our extraordinary past, but also a reminder of how, so often, we are just recreating ideas and creativity from centuries gone by.
Here, exclusively for AnOther, Wild selects his favourite posts from the blog and explains why they are so special.
1. Piccadilly Circus by Chalmers Butterfield, 1949
Chalmers Butterfield was an American in England just after WWII. He brought with him some Kodachrome film and took this picture of Piccadilly Circus. Colour film was rare in Britain at that time. This was the first picture on Retronaut to go viral. People looked at it and asked if it was a film set. They couldn't get their heads around a colour picture of London from 1949. In fact, the first colour photograph was taken in 1870.
2. Antarctic Snow Cruiser, late 1930s
The Antarctic Snow Cruiser shipped to Antarctica in the late 1930s. It didn't work as intended and was abandoned in Antarctica. Rediscovered under a deep layer of snow in 1958, it later disappeared again due to shifting ice conditions. I love how red it is, and I love to think of that massive red vehicle hidden from everyone somewhere under the snow. It's there, right now. What is it thinking, I wonder.
3. David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust photoshoot, by Brian Ward, 1972
I was a big Bowie fan as a teenager, which didn't go down well at school. Turns out I was right and he is indeed ruler of the rock universe. I spent so much time looking at the sleeve of Ziggy Stardust when I was ten that to see the outtakes from the photo session off Regent Street still freaks me out. In a moonage daydream.
4. Georgian Eye jewellery, 1700s
I would happily buy and indeed wear one of these Georgian eye brooches *breaks off to hurriedly rewrite Christmas list*. Actually, it could be a modern repro and I would still wear it. For me these brooches generate the response that makes Retronaut work - "It's hard to believe these are from X time period".
5. HMV, 1976
The power of everyday time travel. Is 1976 long ago? I was six, we moved house, I climbed the tree in the new garden and read my Disney comic in the shade. I remember it vividly, it was – as is all the past – now, but another version of now. Colour photography collapses time, like this picture. What was I doing, aged six, when the transit driver let the taxi cut in? What was he listening to on his radio? What shampoo had he used? Where was the older woman in the orange dress going? These questions fascinate me, all the time.
6. Aérotrain, late 1960s
The Aérotrain was a Hovertrain developed in France from 1965 to 1977. The project was abandoned in 1977. Someone commented on the site that here was a train with an inferiority complex.
7. Construction of Brasilia, 1950s
Who wouldn't fall for modernism's promise of the universal language of architecture after seeing the construction of Brasilia. And yet in the 1970s, the weeds of nostalgia began to grow through the poured concrete of Corbusier's world. Nostalgia is a form of grief, grief for that which has been lost in time. Before the 1920s, the word meant the painful longing for one's geographic home, not one's temporal home. It only took on this meaning after WWI.
8. Piccadilly Circus in colour, 1950s
The days when:
a. You could leave your motorbike on the kerb edge at Piccadilly Circus.
b. Your motorbike was likely to be British.
c. If you were a business man, you wore a bowler hat and carried a rolled umbrella.
9. New York postmen by Saul Leiter, 1950s
The snowflakes in this picture collapse time. It's hard to remember that so much of being alive does not change, including, for example, snowflakes. These postmen were not living in the past. They were living in now. Whose past are we living in?
10. Motor race by Jacques Henri Lartigue, c. 1900s
Instant photography was rare at the beginning of the 20th century. Serious photographers saw it as gimmicky, and the technical results were unreliable distorted. Luckily Jacques Henri Lartigue didn't care about this because he was a child. His photographs were discovered in the 1960s.