Retronaut Revealed | Interview with Chris Wild

Since this journal post, we have stopped selling greeting cards. We continue to print packaging for our range of industrial lighting products using letterpress and personalise notebooks using mechanical typesetting and letterpress.


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To mark the launch of the first three capsules of Retronaut curated/Prelogram printed cards, we catch up with Retronaut-in-Chief Chris Wild, the person behind the viral sensation.

Before Retronaut you wanted to be a rock star or a time traveller, but you ended up working for the UK’s Museums, Libraries and Archives Council. How did that happen?

Chris Wild RetronautIt turned out that working for the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council was the quickest route to becoming a time traveller. The years I spent failing to have any impact on the nation’s museums and archives forced me to think about them in a very detailed and focused way. The vast majority of them left me cold and still leave me cold – but there were some that I saw, and some objects within them, that for me had an enormous and seemingly untapped power – a power to disrupt our sense of time, to dissolve the barrier between present and past. I figured that if I could harness that power, I might be able to build something akin to a time-machine. Hence Retronaut. The “rock star” I at still working on. Lets just say I now have the right guitar.

Retronaut Mayflower and blimp New York Harbour

You have curated some amazing capsules featuring magical moments in history such as a blimp greeting the Mayflower II in New York harbour 1957 and Tippi Hedren at home with Neil the lion. What are the most memorable for you?

I love old colour photographs, and I love America, and I ESPECIALLY love New York, so the colour pictures of New York in neon from the 1940s tick all my boxes.

Do you ever come up against obstacles trying to gain access to archives?

In all but a handful of instances, no. Retronaut acts a little like a shop window for archives, and it’s a shop window on a street with a lot of people. Having their wares in the window gets a lot of people to stop and look – or more specifically, generates traffic for the archive.

How many of the photographs you find come from amateur photographers?

One type of photograph that works very well on Retronaut is candid or casual photographs from a time when we don’t expect such casual imagery to exist. These were often taken by amateur photographers. When we see Victorians smiling and fooling around, it just doesn’t fit with the picture of the Victorians we have in our heads. Some of these pictures are now in formal archives – but many are not.

What is the most recently taken photograph you have included in a capsule?

Retronaut Windows 95Retronaut works by curating pictures that do not fit with the way most people imagine the past. The point at which ‘the present’ stops and ‘the past’ begins is fluid, and is different for each of us. The more recent a picture is, the less it will feel like ‘the past’ to people. But one recent set we featured was the launch fever of Windows 95, twenty years ago.

Social media platforms such as Instagram have an average of 70 million photos posted daily. What do you think about photography in the age of the smartphone, are we obsessed with taking and looking at photographs?

We are indeed obsessed with taking and looking at pictures – or to put it another way, sharing photographs is a very efficient and rich way of communicating and sharing information. I describe photographs as the currency of the internet. They are the primary vehicle for communicating with each other about our lives. Text is supplementary. This has deep implications for those of us who work in museums and archives, by the way.

As an entrepreneur and a family man how do you manage the work-life balance?

I am very lucky indeed because I can work from anywhere, and at any time. This means I am often working at home, and I can pick up and put down my Retronaut activity to fit around what everyone is doing. Also, Retronaut is a reflection of who I am as a person, and so it is what I would do if I wasn’t working – which was always my number one career goal.

Retronaut, now hosted by Mashable, has a global reach and followers in the millions, how many people does it take to manage such a phenomenon?

Retronaut is indeed now exclusively licensed digitally to Mashable. Its been a brilliant partnership for Retronaut and for me – their team is exceptionally impressive, and also exceptionally nice. And it has put the Retronaut brand in front of a bigger audience than ever before. I won’t tell you exactly how many Retronaut’s team is – its smaller than you might imagine, which is primarily due to the great partnerships we have, such as with Prelogram.Transport landscape

How have you found this transition from blogger-to-businessman? Do you still get to spend much time looking through photographs or have emails and meetings taken over?

On the contrary, as time has gone by and as Retronaut has become stronger, more and more of my time has been freed up. I often say that some of the strongest curators today are brands, and in that sense, Retronaut curates, and organises itself. Retronaut attracts its own opportunities. And I still spend a significant amount of time waving my magnet over archival haystacks on the hunt for Retronautic needles. So to speak.

You have said recently in the Financial Times that your colleague Amanda Uren is, ‘the best digital curator I’ve ever met’. Does Amanda ever find images you wish you had found first?

Amanda’s genius lies in the fact that she is mildly interested in absolutely everything, and can therefore connect the seemingly unrelated. She can find pictures that don’t fit with what she knows of a given subject with great ease. The first time I met her, she showed me a bank of images all of which I wished I had found. My favourite was an armed guard around Hitler’s Nazi sports car. It looked like something from Logan’s Run.Beauty landscape

What’s next for Retronaut? Another book, your own TV series perhaps?

We have two more books coming out next summer with the publisher Ilex, which I am very excited about. We are also working with a well-known production company on a Retronaut TV show – its currently being pitched to channels, so I would love to see that happen. Oh, and of course, I do need to become a rock star. I used to think I had well and truly missed every possible boat, but hey – Seasick Steve! Plus I have a time-machine…

Images courtesy of Chris Wild, National Geographic, Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images