Liberating ideas

Help us build The Paper Time Machine

Help us build The Paper Time Machine

Today marks an important milestone. Over five years have passed since I first met Wolfgang Wild. At that first meeting he told me he was building a time machine. Even in the hyperbole-friendly world I inhabit, this was quite a claim. But there was a seriousness and intensity to Wolfgang that made me pause. And then he showed it to me: a very early version of the site that would become known as Retronaut. And I knew then that I wanted to publish the paper version of that site, the souvenir album of his journeys back in time.

Many of you will know the Retronaut site. It is one of the very best things on the internet, a unique collection of photographs and films that present the past in a way that makes it seem unfamiliar and vivid – put simply, it makes the past feel present. To do this Wolfgang has raided the archives of photographic collections all over the world. Amazing colour photos of 19th century rural Russia sit next to English Victorian portraits in which the subjects smile; catalogues of American child labourers from the early 20th century run alongside scarcely believable sequences about the construction of the Statue of Liberty; crisp photographs from the Crimean War in 1855 balance unseen pictures from the Walt Disney archive. All of them make you look; all of them make you think differently about the past.

As the Retronaut site has grown (and been visited by millions of people), Wolfgang and I have met regularly to see if we could dream up a book. And then in December, he rang to say he thought he’d made the breakthrough. He came over the next day, buzzing with excitement. He had found, he told me, a genius, someone who could add colour to black and white photos that was so accurate, so realistic that it looked like they had been taken in colour. His description of the effect these images had us both was perfect: ‘It’s like that moment when someone enters a dark aircraft hangar, throws a switch and a long row of arc lights turn on, flooding the space with light.’

Suddenly, Wolfgang’s black and white images – already stretching our sense of time – were transformed into something unimaginably vivid. The opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb looked like stills from a CNN news broadcast. Every piece of clothing, every skin tone had the ring of truth and authenticity about it. This was our book – the past in colour, a time machine made from paper.

The genius was Jordan Lloyd, and his company Dynamichrome have transformed the craft of colour reconstruction into an art. He breaks each image down into a grid and adds colour as carefully and lovingly as you might in restoring a medieval wall painting. Each detail – a piece of clothing, a make of car, a bill board sign – are researched for accuracy and then cross-referenced with the time, conditions, light level and capabilities of the camera on which the original image was taken. The result is haunting. The picture of a ten year-old mineworker from North Carolina suddenly carries the face of a real child; Howard Carter is no longer just ‘the man who discovered Tuthankhamun’ but a working archaeologist, with dust on the knees of his tweed trousers. The Retronuatic effect of collapsing time is given its most vivid and memorable expression: looking at these images it as if you are standing behind the camera.

Miner boy

The book will have 150 of them, many from the amazing archive at Getty Images, who are enthusiastic supporters of the project. It will be lavish and beautiful coffee table book, much like Unbound’s other time-travelling project, Letters of Note. In fact, Letters of Note and Retronaut were the two blogs I most wanted to turn into books when we launched Unbound back in 2011. Another reason why today is special. I bloody love my job!

As well as all the physical options – signed, boxed deluxe edition, special prints – there’s even the chance to have one of your own images coloured and the research process made into a film. We need to raise £60,000 to make it but, with your support, we are confident we can do it. Unbound is about finding ways to make the impossible, the unthinkable, happen.

The Paper Time Machine is our biggest challenge yet. Please help us build it.

John Mitchinson