Photography in the First World War: From Portraits to Propaganda

Unidentified photographer, Great Britain, active early 20th century, Summer 1914 (c. 1914), album containing carbon, platinum and gelatin silver prints. Wilson Centre for Photography, London

In May 1915, a young Canadian officer, James Wells Ross, wrote home from the trenches of northern France: “Am still O.K. and dodging shells. … Some unspeakable English Tommy ransacked my dugout while I was at breakfast and stripped everything off my belt, pistol, pouch, compass, etc. and cleaned out my haversack. Thank heaven, they left my photographs as I would be lost without them.”

Such was the importance of the photograph to soldiers fighting in the First World War, as well as to their families. As talisman, souvenir, or salve for emotional wounds, the photograph was an object to be cherished and protected, buttoned up in a pocket, slipped into a letter, or carefully arranged in an album. 

The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography is the latest exhibition of photographs to open at the National Gallery, and part of the international commemoration of the start of the First World War a century ago this summer. Rather than simply presenting the historical events in images, as visitors might expect, The Great War takes an unusual approach. “This exhibition is not a battle-by-battle illustration of the First World War,” said Ann Thomas, NGC Curator of Photographs, during a recent tour of the show. “There are plenty of books and exhibitions that have done that. What we wanted to do was to look at how photography functioned during the First World War.”

That means looking at photographs as personal objectslike James Ross’ precious keepsakes—but also as tools used by governments and the military for recruitment, morale-boosting, historical documentation, strategic planning, propaganda and counter-propaganda.

William Rider-Rider, Smashed Pill-Box, Passchendaele, Belgium (10 November 1917), gelatin silver print, 15.8 × 20.8 cm. George Metcalf Archival Collection, Canadian War Museum (CWM 19900076-198)

There are over 400 photographs on display—most of them borrowed from national and international collections, both private and public—ranging from small pocket-sized portraits to panoramas showing entire battalions in neat rows, and huge enlargements of official, government-sanctioned images of battlefields. Also included in the exhibition are stereographs—double images requiring a special viewer to create a 3-D effect—and a mesmerizing film shot from a balloon flying over shattered French villages.

The exhibition is divided into sections, based on different photographic forms and purposes. The first room is a prelude of sorts, with amateur photographs and albums made during the pre-war years. Projected onto a wall are black-and-white slides from an album labelled “Summer 1914.”  A group of fresh-faced youths pose for the camera on a pebbly English beach, the women gorgeous in their flowing white dresses and Pre-Raphaelite hair, the men handsome and fit. We see friends embracing, women sharing The Suffragette magazine, and swimmers emerging from the cold Atlantic. “A memory of happy days,” reads the album’s inscription.

On another wall are Léon Gimpel’s famous staged photographs of the Greneta Street Army, a group of Parisian children who gathered on Sundays to play war, under the photographer’s direction. Gimpel’s colour images of kids dressed as French and German soldiers, manoeuvring pint-sized propeller planes and staging mock executions, waver between adorable and chilling.

Farther on, the real war explodes in images. Soldiers trudge through the mud, lie wounded on stretchers, or crumpled on the ground. Plumes of smoke rise from ruins. Scrawled on a cross amid some rubble is “Misery”ironically, the name of the destroyed town. 

Max Pohly, Police Dog Establishment in Kummersdorf, Germany (c. 1915), gelatin silver print, 12.7 x 17.8 cm. Black Star Collection at Ryerson University. Courtesy Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto [BS.2005.122162/71-1621]

The fifty large black-and-white photographs hanging cheek by jowl in this main gallery were taken by official war photographers with the London-based Canadian War Records Office. Established by Sir Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook) in 1916, the Office was part publicity agency, part archive, sending photographers, painters and cinematographers into the field to document the action.  France had been the first combatant to form a military photography unit, and Great Britain and Australia soon followed suit.

This dramatic display—a highlight of The Great War—re-creates an exhibition of Canadian official war photographs held in 1917 at the Grafton Galleries, a London gallery that hosted a series of such exhibitions. Organized by Lord Beaverbrook and photographer William Ivor Castle, the exhibition attracted more than 80,000 visitors during its six-week run. Among the jaw-droppers was Castle’s 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over “No Man’s Land,” showing Canadian soldiers taking Vimy Ridge. At 11 x 20 feet, it was the largest photograph in the world back in the day, and still takes up an entire wall.

William Ivor Castle, 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over "No man's Land" through the German Barbed Wire and Heavy Fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge (1917, printed 2014), ink-jet print, 320 × 610 cm. Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa (a001020)

Castle’s image was not quite accurate, however. In current parlance, it was Photoshopped, using multiple views from different negatives. In these early days of photography, however, darkroom manipulation was arguably a legitimate way of recounting the facts. Professional photographers were usually laden with heavy cameras, glass plates and cumbersome tripods that made them sitting ducks at the front. As Castle later wrote, “One might get some wonderful photographs if one had complete liberty of movement. But one would want a hundred charmed lives and indulgence from the enemy.”

This reproduction of the Grafton Galleries exhibition immerses visitors in the time and place, giving them a bit of the frisson that London crowds must have felt. 

The next room features striking images by other official war photographers: the Australian Frank Hurley, who had been the photographer for the Shackleton Antarctic expedition; British photographer Olive Edis, the only female in the group; Max Pohly, a German photographer who travelled with the German Army and also documented the Eastern Front; and French photographers Paul Castelnau and Fernand Cuville, whose colour autochromes are superbly displayed on LED screens. Castelnau’s image of the glorious Reims cathedral rising above shattered buildings is one of several works that exemplify the strange and paradoxical beauty of ruins—what Thomas calls a “morbid picturesqueness.”

Fernand Cuville, Russian Soldiers at the Convent of Les Cordeliers (February–April, 1917), ink-jet reproduction of original autochrome, 9 × 12 cm. Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine, Montigny-le-Bretonneux. CVL00046. © Ministère de la Culture / Médiathèque du Patrimoine, Dist. RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The aerial photographs attached by magnets to the wall of the final gallery, war-room style, are evidence of the strategic use of photography during the war, for such images were used for surveillance, mapping, and locating arsenals, railways and other targets.

Ann Thomas speaks passionately about what she has discovered in her research for The Great War. Both the personal and official photographs recount moving and terrible truths. “The soldiers’ testimonies and letters are extremely touching,” she says. “At the same time, I’m cognizant of the fact that no single image, no poem, no piece of writing can tell the story of an experience like this. Photographs do not convey smells, sounds or the visceral nature of this war. Really, to appreciate the all-encompassing nature of war, you probably have to be there in the midst of the fray. I bow to the experience of soldiers.”

The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until November 16, 2014. A bilingual catalogue accompanies the exhibition.

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