‘Retronauting': why we can’t stop sharing old photographs

Brighton Swimming Club

What is nostalgia? For me it’s triggered by the sense that my parents might be young people in Butterfield’s deep colour vistas of the West End of London. For enthusiasts who post historic photographs on Twitter, it’s more broadly scattered. These pictures reveal the wealth of photographic documents, memories and arcana that these sites have dragged into the 21st-century limelight, from an 1890s portrait of Cornelia Sorabji, India’s first female advocate and the first woman to study law at Oxford University, to the building of the Hoover dam in Roosevelt’s America.

This is the fascination of “retronauting”. A photograph really is a frozen fragment of time. Not even the fastest, most gifted artists or the most sensually specific novelists have ever captured the kind of incidental realities a photograph dumbly records – the creases in the uniform of the last Napoleonic veteran, his paunch and sidelong glance and white whiskers – or the Brighton Swimming Club in 1863, naked except for their trunks and top hats. What painter would have included the ridiculous top hats? Even as we laugh, we are seeing something disarmingly real – an unfeigned revelation of Victorian habits.

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