2015 Topical Reporting, Medium Newsroom finalist

Retronaut: Time Travel Through Photography


About the Project

Jimi Hendrix’s riffs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Titanic. We all know these moments in history, and, chances are, a specific image comes to mind when we retrace what happened. But what about the photos you never saw? The other side of the story you never heard?

Retronaut takes the moments you thought you knew and turns them on their head. It’s history, presented in an unexpected way. Mashable’s Chris Wild, a former museum curator based in London, spends his days sifting through archival photos both in digital form and in places that time simply forgot: old books, library corners and the like.

What makes Retronaut special isn’t just the imagery that it presents; it’s the element of surprise. Wild, who has published more than 100 photo essays on Mashable since September 2014, doesn’t just repurpose old images. He uses them to show a different aspect of an event or person we thought we knew.

Some of these stories explore quirky moments in history, such as the time Fidel Castro visited a New York City school and second-graders wore fake beards for an endearing photography session with him.

Remember the MGM lion? While on his way to a publicity event in 1927, he was in a plane crash and survived by eating sandwiches.

Ringo Starr used to live with Jimi Hendrix, but apparently he was a terrible roommate. Starr eventually evicted him after he whitewashed the walls in their London apartment while tripping on acid.

Retronaut also touches on history’s somber moments. One photo essay shows 15 images of the imperial Romanov family shortly before they were executed under Lenin’s orders during the Russian Revolution. The photos are an intimate look into the family’s private life, including one in which Anastasia Romanov goofs off with fake teeth.

In other stories, Wild uses unique images to explore the development of photography itself, as he did with the first-known photo of a human from 1847. In Russia Before the Revolution, Wild details the crude process of creating color images in the early 1900s.

Photos like these were buried in archives for years, but it took someone with both determination and imagination to dig them up and tell their stories. This is what Retronaut does best, and there’s nothing else on the web like it.