Very old photographs are like time machines, transporting you to an era that has long vanished. Looking at them makes you imagine what it was like to live back then. But some vintage pictures, like the following photographs of islands, can do more than take you on a journey to lost time. They can unmoor certain thoughts. Suddenly, sometimes almost instinctively, you find yourself contemplating upon life and the human condition.

I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

— from the Simon & Garfunkle song ‘I am a Rock’ (1965)

Landscape with sea and island, 1909 to 1926
Christian Leden (Norwegian, 1882–1957)
Courtesy of Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library of Norway)

Your isle, which stands
As Neptune’s park, ribbed and paled in
With rocks unscalable, and roaring waters.

— William Shakespeare, Cymbeline (1611), Act III, scene 1

Sugar Loaf Islands, Farallons, 1868–69
Carleton E. Watkins (American, 1829–1916), photographer
Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Ay, many flowering islands lie

In the waters of wide Agony:

To such a one this morn was led

My bark, by soft winds piloted:

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, from “Lines Written Among the Euganean Hills” (1818)

Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada (King Survey), 1867
Timothy H. O’Sullivan (Irish-born American, 1840-1882)
Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.

— John Donne, from “Meditation XVII”, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions (1624)

Panorama II, harbour in Senjen, Tromsø County, 1900–1910
Unidentified photographer
Courtesy of Riksarkivet (National Archives of Norway)

It needs no place. It is everywhere and nowhere. It refuses entry to none who asks. It is an island of the Soul.

— C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (second edition, 1941)

The Heather Island, Loch Lomond, 1870s
James Valentine (Scottish, 1815–1879), photographer
The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Thousand Islands (New York), c. 1909
Haines Photo Co. (Conneaut, Ohio), photographers
Courtesy of the Library of Congress, USA

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