‘History From Their Viewpoint’: Photography During World War I

Stationed in Egypt on the Eastern Front, soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force playfully exchange hats with sailors.

“Tens of thousands of brave lads in the camps and trenches of France are keeping their own Kodak story of the war — a story that will always be intense to them because it is history from their viewpoint.”

“Ladies’ Home Journal,” August 1917

World War I was the first major conflict to occur after the widespread democratization of photography. Soldiers photographed the things that were personally significant as a means of remembering an individualized history in addition to the collective official one. In a way, battlefields functioned as destinations with the soldier as visitor, using the camera to capture the familiar and (often heinous) unfamiliar, the physical journey, and moments of leisure.

A soldier awaiting deployment at Camp Doniphan, in Fort Sill, Oklahoma, aims his camera at the viewer.

Prior to World War I, war photography belonged to the realm of professional photographers. The photographic process was cumbersome and daunting, requiring photographers to mix chemicals onsite — negatives were prepared, exposed, and prints developed within minutes in a portable darkroom. Fortunately, by 1880, photographic technology had evolved, removing the laborious process from the act of photographing — opening the field to non-professionals.

Understanding the need for simplified procedures, George Eastman introduced the Kodak box camera in 1888. Weighing less than two pounds, the camera came preloaded with a roll of 100-exposure celluloid film. After mailing the camera back to Kodak, prints were made and the camera, loaded with a new roll of film, was mailed back to the user. Emphasizing the ease of the process, Kodak’s motto was “you press the button, we do the rest.” Photography soon proliferated through all aspects of modern life.

At the start of WWI, many European soldiers were equipped with personal cameras — the most common type was the Vest Pocket Kodak. The original version was tiny (touted as “the vest pocket camera that will really go in the vest pocket”), measuring 5 x 3 x 1 inch (closed). Marketed to families of soldiers as a good “parting gift,” the Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak had an added feature that enabled the photographer to write notes onto the paper backing of the film while still in the camera through a built-in window. From August 1914, soldiers documented the early months of the war — from the first engagements through the establishment of trench warfare. Allied officials eager to control the “official view of war,” banned personal photography and instead established sanctioned photographic units. These official photographers avoided controversial or gruesome subjects and instead emphasized war preparedness and victory as a means of securing support of troops awaiting deployment and of civilians at home.

Photography allowed soldiers to personalize the war experience well beyond the “official” record.

Four men belonging to the 110th Engineers, 35th Division, of the American Expeditionary Forces
in mock combat with guns and knives

Soldiers continued to photograph, however. Photographic supplies were readily available; the French-owned Photo-Plait made special accommodations for soldiers, setting up a “Photo Work for the Front service.” Amateur photography contests were also popular; the French illustrated magazine “Le Miroir” frequently held a “most sensational war photograph” contest, and Britain’s “Daily Mirror” promised huge cash prizes for “real war photographs.” There were even photography exhibitions held at the front for “all our friends, amateurs of the Kodak . . . to participate.”

In Egypt on the Eastern Front, Sikh Indian soldiers fought alongside the British Expeditionary Forces, providing a significant aiding force to the war effort.

Life in the military consisted of long periods of waiting followed by intense fighting. Not surprisingly, most of the photographs taken by soldiers depict friends and comrades: smiling, gathered in groups, playing games, gambling and drinking. Because friendships made in the field could be short-lived, soldiers made ongoing records of their companions. To counteract the solemnity of war, soldiers photographed jokes played on one another and modeled new equipment like gas masks. Light-hearted images sent home lessened anxiety and demonstrated the continuation of workings of everyday life despite war.

Soldiers were proud of new positions/ranks and photographed themselves with weapons specific to divisions — artillerymen with cannons, pilots with planes. Posed in mock combat, they acted out the bravery demanded of them. New weaponry held a special fascination; a soldier pictured with a tank, machine gun, or grenade simultaneously flouted the exoticism and danger of the object, as well as pride in possessing the trophy. Unexploded shells, crashed planes, and damaged tanks belonging to the enemy emphasized incompetence and provided proof that defeat was possible. Encounters with foreign civilian populations forced soldiers to confront the unfamiliar, especially on the Eastern Front.

As troops moved through unfamiliar territory, soldiers included the landscape in their photographs — comrades on bridges or next to houses, views of distant towns, churches and dense forests. As the war progressed, piles of rubble, devastation to towns and dead livestock were documented. Friends pictured amidst ruins implied strategic success. Battlefields stripped of vegetation, large craters caused by explosions, muddy trenches, barbed wire and underground shelters conveyed the realities of life in war. Although some soldiers managed to photograph individual explosions, actual battle depictions were rare. Many of the photographs taken of dead soldiers seem almost incidental and part of the background of war. Others depict the result of unfathomably devastating battles. More frequent are images of graves photographed as an act of respect to fallen comrades.

This image from the album of a German officer depicts the dead and dying on the other side of a barbed wire fence.

Photography allowed soldiers to personalize the war experience well beyond the “official” record. As Kodak’s official magazine noted: “The present [war] is probably its first war experience in the hands of amateurs. Thousands of Kodaks are in the kits of soldiers at the front. Thousands more are in the hands of civilians within the war zone. And the shutters of all these are busy ‘getting’ the story of the greatest of all wars, as only pictures can . . . With the Kodak in our hands the past can never get very far away from the present again. This is photography’s incalculable service to mankind.”

Jane Aspinwall served as a photographic advisor for “Snapshot,” an exhibit exploring this topic running Oct. 29 through April 3 at the National WWI Museum and Memorial. For more information, 816.888.8100 or www.theworldwar.org.

all photos courtesy of National WWI Museum and Memorial

Author’s note: This is my last installment of photography-related articles for KC Studio magazine. I want to deeply thank those who made this position possible; I cannot express how helpful these articles have been for me. This fall, I leave Kansas City — my lifelong home — to begin a new position as Curator of Photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida. I look forward to exploring this hidden gem, which is equal in size to the collection I helped to build as curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art over the last 15-plus years.

Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Leave a Reply