This spring a series of more than 400 photographs from the First World War appeared on “In Focus,” The Atlantic’s photography blog. It was spread out across ten thematic parts, and it bespoke an enormous amount of curatorial effort by Alan Taylor, the blog’s editor.
The World War I photographs are as horrible as any current-events coverage Taylor might post, but they’re also weird. They have a mood; they are uncanny. You don’t know how to dismiss them, and so you can’t. Looking at the French priest blessing a prop plane in the mire, you have to ask, “What was he thinking?”
When I spoke to Taylor, he said that this was what had driven him to do more than a year’s worth of work on the series was this quality: the strangeness of these images, many of them found on postcards printed for a world transfixed by the war that was tearing it apart. Taylor’s photographic record is so great that it seemed an invitation to go further and to get lost, in a few of these images. It may be that this is how we get to know war: not by fighting it, but by seeing it again — as strange.
This is a series of interviews on a few images or trends in images, conducted with three experts. Thanks to all of them for their participation.
Alan Taylor, on a waste of a war
Taylor comes at these images not as a expert not on war but on photography. He was struck by the jerry-rigged quality of the war’s technology, its planning, and the tentative efforts of all parties to get ahead of each other. They are ‘like us’, but they are also like their grandparents — people we have forgotten.
Passchendaele was the most hellish scene of the entire war. This was taken in 1917, after years of fighting at Ypres, by Frank Hurley, an Australian photographer and one of those actual adventurers the early twentieth century produced. (He was the cameraman during the long marooning of the Shackleton expedition to the South Pole, and managed to live until 1962.)
Here is that blend of old and new worlds, consummated by ingenuity in the service of the fighting. Taylor also described an image of rockets tied with twine to the struts of a biplane. It was an age before precision strikes.
This photograph has an ethnographic quality to it. It is a staged lineup of soldiers imprisoned by the Germans. It leaves no doubt about this being a “world war”.
Taylor ended his entire series with this image: different year, different peace, same kind of kiss.
Ann Thomas of the National Gallery of Canada, on propaganda
Thomas, the museum’s curator of photography, put together “The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography“, an exhibition running through November 16. The exhibition is designed to show photography at work in wartime: as tools of state power, as symbol of military organization, or as a keepsake for loved ones at home. One captured Canadian soldier even used his personal photographs to remind German captors that he had family waiting for him. Thomas accentuated the tense relationship between the scenes in the “epic mode” described by Susan Sontag and the personal portraits of soldiers.
Here, Canadian Corps soldiers are shown after a 1917 victory over German forces on Vimy Ridge on the Western Front. Those are German bodies in the foreground. This image was used as a massive window on the war in a state-sponsored exhibition in London, which Thomas recreated at the National Gallery. Max Aitken, later Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian businessman, first organized these exhibitions as a tool of persuasion, putting an image like this one — an image of a decisive victory, printed 10 feet by 20 feet — in front of a public that might have come to question the purpose or the hope of victory.
This is a group portrait of the 122nd Overseas Battalion taken in rural Port Carling, a small township about four hours from Ottawa. There are officers on horseback, bandmembers, a stream of soldiers running back over the bridges: then one old man in the middle who may not, Thomas surmises, have known he was going to be in the very center of this panoramic photograph.
The caption says it all: this is a portrait of an unknown German soldier from an unknown year, one of hundreds of small keepsake photographs that adorn one entire wall of the National Gallery’s exhibition. We don’t know anything about this image, or what it’s supposed to be saying, except that the soldier himself has a face worth studying.
Catharina Slautterback of The Boston Athenaeum, on war posters
At the Athenaeum, Catharina Slautterback presides over a collection of thousands of posters from the First World War, which make for an interesting parallel case to the war’s photography. Select posters are being presented starting next week through January 2015 as part of an exhibition entitled “Over Here!: World War I Posters from Around the World.”
Ms. Slautterback chose three posters that seemed to her to show how Britain, Germany, and France established themselves as fearsome war powers on the homefront.
This one stands out because of its high-design aesthetic, not in the conservative magazine style of most of the war posters. It might just as well come from the Summer of Love, except for the array of knives on it. And Slautterback points out that we miss the violence of this poster because of its modern look, even to the point of forgetting what the bayonets are supposed to do.
This German poster touts “Our Smashing Success” in 1914: the wreck of Liège, Belgium, using shells just like this one, in the first battle of the war. Throughout the Germans preferred the blackletter typefaces and monochrome compositions seen here, which make for a harsh contrast with some of the rainbow-colored optimistic American examples on show at the Museum of Fine Arts.
The Howitzer that fired this shell (depicted at Originalgröße, or full size, on the poster) came to be known as Dicke Bertha, or “Big Bertha”. It was so named, some say, for Bertha Krupp, the heiress and director of the Krupps corporation, which then made armaments and today makes coffee machines.
Slautterback’s last poster was intended to celebrate, or at least raise money for, an army of black Africans fighting fiercely alongside French and Vietnamese soldiers. But what is this drawing supposed to do: amuse, impress or terrify? And why did all those feelings seem to lie so close together when it came to this war, and not to others?