I travelled to Antwerp to visit the Foto Museum there; the main exhibition showing was The Shooting Range
There are many exhibitions marking the centenary of the begining of the First World War. This one is not so much about the war itself, but “how it was portrayed in photography and film.” Obviously, it was used as a political weapon but what were it’s other uses? These were many as apart from propraganda, photography was also provided an eye witness account. These other non-official narratives emerged after the war.
At the entrance to the exhibition, there was a large photograph of a soldier apparently photographing the war with a huge camera that looked like a Hassleblad yet about ten times bigger. On entering, there was a slide presentation covering a whole wall of the gallery, revealing much of what this photography exhibition is about; not the history of the war but the way photography was used during it. One might also say that this is not so much a photography exhibition rather one that explains the use of culture largely visual in the waging of WW1.
Grafton Gallery in London during 1917, was the first to start exhibiting WW1 photography; it also proved to be another function of the propraganda machine. During the war, press imagery was carefully controlled with many staged images. Photographic subjects are of men marching cheerfully to war and prisoners of war being treated with respect yet the press did manage to get hold of more truthful photographs taken by soldiers although they were not meant to be using cameras. It was only later that photography came to be used as a war against war. Before World War 1, photography had never before been used to such an extent as it was in this conflict.
Soldiers were immortalised by portrait photography.
There is a digital slide show on a TV sized screen of a recently rereleased 1924 book by Ernst Friedrich about war; “War against War
“, original multilingual, reveals the terror and horror as in masses of dead bodies. There are also many photographs of executions among those of the dead as well as photographs of those who were mutilated.
Another book is Fighting in Flanders
has outstanding photographs by Donald Thompson. In his report in Het Leven on the suffering of the wounded, journalist and photographer Arthur Tervooren, does not show any image of the wounded.
Montage techniques were used to symbolically reunite families.
There were portrait studios near the front doing great business in immortalising soldiers as they passed through. Often these would become postcards that could be sent home as a momentous mori.
Photography was used to boost morale!
Topographical images were made for strategic purposes.
Aerial photography was used to show the extent of the destruction. Images that performed a function during the war were later used for different reasons such as in “war tourism”. Michelin published guide books showing photographs of battle scars in which shattered buildings became the heroes rather than soldiers.
Newspapers were asked to publish encouraging text alongside the imagery.
It is surprising to see the cheerfulness of many soldiers when confronted by a camera. Of course, these are probably the exception!? Imagery was being used for propaganda purposes.
There are photographs from the Somme; 60,000 men died on the first day of the offensive. Only 12 kilometres of ground was won during the battle.
The exhibition includes moving film footage that convey a dramatic picture of the way war was waged. Movie clips also reveal fictions created to show what the war was like. Photomontage was used also in this context. There is also straight footage revealing what went on during the conflict.
I wonder what the effect is of seeing this kind of information so long after the event. Are we being numbed and made insensitive to such conflict which still continues. Do we learn from such imagery and if so what?
The exhibition encourages one to look at the war objectively. Relevant images with text are presented that let the viewer know the way in which photography was used to construct the war but one is left to ask one’s own questions about it, encouraged by one wall of the gallery being inscribed with text such as “Do photographs create the enemy? Did photography make WW1 visible? What remains outside of the picture?”
The exhibition that fills two galleries uses a variety of media; there is film footage, still photographs, prints and books, postcards and sterographs that are fixed in cabinets yet can also be viewed with a stereo graphic holder while one can also see pocket camera models used at this time inside glass cabinets. One is left with a more comprehensive understanding than that allowed during the event. Certainly, there is a wealth of material presented to the viewer who can then make up his mind.