Did you know that some of the earliest combat images were captured on personal pocket cameras by professional soldiers (amateur photographers), not by official or professional photographers?
Remembrance Day and Veterans Day were originally designated to observe the end of World War I on November 11, 1918. Over the decades, it’s become clear that the war to end all wars was not to be the last. November 11 has since become a day to remember casualties of all conflicts. This year is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. It seems timely to take a look at how the photography that came out of World War I has influenced photojournalism since.
Note: some images below are graphic and may be disturbing.
The rise of photography in the early 20th century meant that newspapers needed photographs to sell papers. Similarly, most militaries appointed official photographers to capture images that would help to tell the propaganda stories their governments wanted.
Frank Hurley (of Shackleton fame) was asked by the Australian armed forces to spend a significant amount of time in the blood and the muck at Ypres.
Although many of Hurley’s photos have come to represent what these early stages of total war look like, he was unhappy with his images:
None but those who have endeavored can realize the insurmountable difficulties of portraying a modern battle by camera. To include the event on a single negative, I have tried and tried, but the results are hopeless. Everything is on such a vast scale. Figures are scattered — atmosphere is dense with haze and smoke...
Staging and Composites
Following closely in the footsteps of Roger Fenton in the Crimea and Alexander Gardner in the U.S. Civil War, the professional photographers hired to document the war (as well as create to propaganda) were limited by their equipment and the need for military secrecy. Photographs of war from this era were typically photos of the aftermath, or, if action was captured, it was captured from afar, without the immediacy of destruction. Therefore, in an attempt to capture the feeling of the modern battlefield, professional photographers of the 19th and the very early 20th century often resorted to staging and darkroom manipulation.
This Hurley image is a composite made up of several negatives.
It’s likely that an unknown photographer took this photo during a drill and not during combat.
Likewise, it’s suspected that this Girdwood photo was staged and that the dead Germans were positioned for the US soldiers to step over while advancing.
A Brief Note on Bravery
Before moving on, I think that it’s important to note that at one point, Hurley borrowed the coat of a wounded soldier so that he could charge “over the top” of the trenches into gunfire to try to get a better photograph. His manipulation of images shouldn’t overshadow his bravery and the risks he took to fairly represent the soldiers around him.
Despite their best efforts, the official photographers simply didn’t have the access or the equipment to get close enough to the action to capture its intensity.
Despite Hurley and his contemporaries’ struggles to capture the grit of war, many soldiers found success capturing the fighting using pocket cameras. The invention of the Contessa-Nettel and the Kodak Vest Pocket cameras and other similar personal cameras allowed soldiers who fought the war to photograph their experiences. Many of these photographs were sent to family back home. Newspapers struggled to tell stories that weren’t authorized by government. Seeking out and publishing these personal photographs helped the world to see the visceral cost of war as it raged.
These were two of the very first combat photographs ever taken. Notice the injured soldier running towards the camera on September 14, 1914.
Here you can feel the intensity of the emotion in the soldiers crawling towards the front in early 1915.
A German solider, Walter Kleinfeldt, fought at the Somme while just 16-years old. He carried his Contessa camera and managed to capture the following images.
Outside of the bounds ascribed to the official photographer, soldier photographers were able to capture the cost of war.
While the official photographs told stories of success at the Somme, soldiers' photographs published shortly after told of the horrific costs: 30,000 dead in 30 minutes, 60,000 dead in a day, and 1.3 million dead in 90 days.
The ability to capture the war from inside also allowed these soldiers to tell feel-good stories that were never intended for public consumption. Here, Turner was able to take photos of the Christmas Truce in 1914 that served to humanize the enemy.
You Aren't Close Enough
Despite the fact that these relatively unheralded photographs don’t make up the basis of our collective consciousness of war, in my view, they are the beginnings of modern conflict photography. Big cameras simply required too much assistance from the military. They isolated photographers and forced them to tell the stories that the government wanted. These amateur photographs allowed journalists to see the benefits of using smaller equipment to get closer to the story, to finally see through the fog of battle that Hurley struggled to see with his field cameras. To me, these types of combat photographs serve as the precursors for what would later become the standard for war photojournalism: close, dirty, and bloody. As Capa was fond of pointing out:
If your pictures aren't good enough, you aren't close enough.
In the end, the path that started back in 1914 has allowed modern photographers to get closer and to ask the same sort of questions that the citizen soldiers asked through their personal photography of World War I: is all this carnage really necessary?
All images used are either in the Public Domain or used under Creative Commons license. Check captions for attribution where possible.