Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine by Chris Wild; National Geographic, 352 pages ($28). It’s that ultimately hardy colloquialism that fits this book to a T – “cool.” This is as cool a photography book as you’re ever likely to come across.
Go to the wonderful Retronaut website and you’ll read this: “What is retronaut? Retronaut is a photographic time machine. It is a digital collection of tens of thousands of pictures from across the past, all with one thing in common – each one has the power to warp your sense of time. Our time machine mines archives online and offline, unearthing pictures that seem not to belong to the time they were created, that dissolve away the years like tarnish on a ring, that take our collective map of the past and tear tiny holes in it – holes through which we glimpse the real past lying underneath our map. These are pictures that show not so much the past as they show ‘now’ – but another version of now.”
In his introduction to this palatial photographic enshrinement of visual incongruity, Chris Wild writes this: “No one has ever lived in ‘the past.’ Everyone has always lived in ‘now.’ What I mean is that being alive in the past felt the same as being alive now. Think of your own life five years ago. What did it feel like? Maybe your hair was longer or shorter or you had more or less money, but what did it feel like to be alive. It felt like ‘now’ – it was just a different version of today.”
Scour this “different version of today” and you find, at the beginning Louis Armstrong in 1961 playing the trumpet to his wife in front of the Sphinx in Egypt. And from the 1890s a photograph of Walter Rothschild, the second Baron Rothschild, being pulled around Hyde Park in London in a carriage drawn by zebras.
345 pages later, the book ends with a 1969 photograph of President Richard Nixon and astronaut Frank Borman greeting Apollo 11 astronauts Michael Collins, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin after their moon landing and now safely behind glass in NASA’s Quarantine facility. They were kept there for 65 hours “until NASA scientists determined the astronauts were not carrying ‘moon germs.’ ” The photographic exhibit in between is a mind-boggling display of what “now” was once like.
– Jeff Simon