Photo Essays

An Excursion to the Past as You’ve Never Imagined It

A portrait at the gibbet (all photographs courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
A portrait at the gibbet (all images courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)

With a mission to show that the past wasn’t always as we now envision it to be, Chris Wild’s Retronaut has been compiling curiosities of vintage photography and other archives online. Last month, an exhibition of Wild’s finds opened at the Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives in the UK.

A Victorian portrait courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
A Victorian portrait

Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine — coinciding with a book by Wild of the same name, which also debuted last month — features highlights of an unexpected past sourced from Wild’s year of exploring the Woodhorn archive. A series of portraits from back when photography required staying still for an uneasy length of time shows people making silly faces, while another group poses for a commemorative photo in front of a gibbet used for hangings (still a macabre destination of sorts, although these days it has a fake head rather than a real body swaying in the field). A banner for “Happiness” hangs above evergreen garlands in a children’s hospital ward, with a caption stating that it was in honor of a visit from the Duke of York. In another photo, a man with a mischievous grin and an elaborate hat disrupts an otherwise mundane picture of Victorians on some steps.

As the exhibition page explains, Wild’s goal is

to unearth pictures that seem not to belong to the time when 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.

You can find more historical oddities on the Museums and Archives Northumberland Flickr stream, including pictures of the Coal Queens pageant winners of English mining communities, Santa Claus arriving by plane in the 1930s to Northumberland, and scouts in a coordinated field exercise in 1910. And there are thousands more photographs on Wild’s site, such as World War II GIFs, William Hope’s 1920s spirit photographs, and documentation of the 1958 reconstruction of Stonehenge, all happily demonstrating that the world was never not a strange place.

"Happiness" in a children's hospital ward (all photographs courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
“Happiness” banner in a children’s hospital ward
A hatted group on steps (all photographs courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
A hatted group on steps
A Victorian portrait (courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
A Victorian portrait
A Victorian portrait (courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
A Victorian portrait
A Victorian portrait (all photographs courtesy Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives)
A Victorian portrait
Portrait of ladies with a clock & hairbrush
Portrait of ladies with a clock & hairbrush
Women pulling a ship
Women pulling a ship
Posed beneath icicles
Posed beneath icicles
"Santa & band" (1935)
“Santa & band” (1935)
"Childrens Gala" (1950s)
“Childrens Gala” (1950s)

Retronaut: The Photographic Time Machine continues at Woodhorn Museum (QEII Country Park, Ashington, UK) through February 22.

h/t BBC

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