The Soldiers' Kodak

by Guy Somerset / 26 April, 2008
Photographs shape our visual memories of World War I, illuminating its great themes. A new book and exhibition reveals New Zealand's rich legacy of material, much of it from the frontline.

If Vietnam was the first televised war, World War I was the first extensively photographed war. Wars had been photographed before - including the Crimean War of 1854-56 and, most notably, the American Civil War of 1861-65 - but by official photographers and the forerunners of photojournalists. The photography in World War I was on a different scale altogether - and not just because the war itself was on a different scale. In World War I, so many of the soldiers themselves carried cameras.

They even had cameras marketed specifically to them. The advent of hand-held cameras, instead of those requiring a tripod and cape, and the development of first the Eastman "Brownie" and then the Kodak had opened up photography to a mass market. By 1916, advertisements were appearing in New Zealand espousing the Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic as "the Soldier's Kodak".

"Take a Soldier's Kodak with you and bring back your own priceless picture record of the great war," said one of the adverts. Another spoke of the camera being "as small as a notebook or diary and [it] will tell a more interesting and convincing story of your share in the Great War."

And so, at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli, by nightfall on April 25, 1915, as well as the dead, the wounded and their equipment littering the beach, there were many abandoned cameras.

Other adverts encouraged those on the home front to send "Kodak pictures to your Soldier Friend".

One in the New Zealand Herald said: "'The Army lives on letters' is the way the boys at the front put it. And when those longed-for envelopes with the home-town postmark contain pictures of the home folks and home doings, they go far toward making lighter hearts and happier faces. Keep your Kodak busy for the sake of the lads in the trenches and the boys in the camp. Help keep tight the bonds between the home, and those who are fighting for that home."

Historian Sandy Callister calls it "the Kodak phenomenon".

"Everyone seemed to be taking photographs to some degree," she says. "It became the dominant medium, instead of painting. That's how we remember it, I think now, through photographic evidence. We see the cartoons and caricatures of the time, which were big, but it's remembered photographically."

Callister is the author of The Face of War: New Zealand's Great War Photography, which is released next month, with an associated exhibition, The Hidden Faces of War: New Zealand's Great War Medical Photography, following as part of the Auckland Festival of Photography.

As well as being an honorary research associate in the University of Auckland's history department, she is managing director of market research company Colmar Brunton, director of market strategists The Providence Report, and a brand and communications consultant.

The visual had always been her central way of understanding the world, even before she took a course at Harvard Business School that looked at American Civil War photography. She subsequently embarked on the PhD from which The Face of War derives.

The book's focus is "on how photographs shaped, and continue to shape, our visual memories of this war ... Many of these photographs illuminate the great themes of this war: love, separation, trauma, grief, death - and nationalism.

"Indeed, if photographs are counted as a form of speech, the survival of a rich archive of visual images contradicts the common belief that New Zealanders were silent about the experience of war."

One way in which photographs have shaped our visual memories of World War I is in the emphasis on images from Gallipoli, says Callister.

"At Gallipoli, the enemy was visible and the New Zealand soldiers could see, and photograph, the cliffs, ravines and beach enclaves that were all markers on the landscape. This ability to 'see' Gallipoli coupled with a more permissive attitude towards photography mean we have a rich legacy of eight months of visual material. Although New Zealand soldiers spent the following three years on the Western Front, the visual record for that period is comparatively poor."

This was a result of tighter military restrictions as the war progressed, the importance placed on the Western Front, and to the nature of industrialised trench warfare.

For Callister, war photography isn't restricted to the battlefield and the official and soldiers' images taken there, but also encompasses the studio portraits of soldiers before they left and the ones they carried of loved ones back home, the rolls of honour newspapers published of casualties, the papers' pictures of families whose "boys are fighting for the Empire's liberty", and images recording the work of New Zealand's pioneering plastic surgeons Sir Harold Gillies and Henry Pickerill.

"One thing I do hope is that my book gives New Zealand families a broader sense of different aspects of the photographic archives that might be important," she says. "Because when you are doing research in the area of war, people will say, 'Oh, you're doing military history and it's about particular campaigns.' The understanding of war as a battlefield has primacy. But I am trying to tease out a wider understanding.

"I was moved by those photographs - even though they are grainy and all the rest - where a family is standing in front of their home and the caption tells you the number of sons away. Those kind of photographic records, which aren't necessarily normally associated with war photography, just capture a more nuanced understanding of sacrifice, because it really does bring home to you the tragedy of families with often multiple bereavements or sons coming home very wounded."

What it meant to come home "very wounded" is made strikingly clear in the medical photography Callister includes in the book and will be expanding upon for The Hidden Faces of War exhibition.

The photographs are drawn principally from the Gillies Archive of the Macalister Collection of Queen Mary's Hospital in Sidcup, Kent, World War I's major centre for plastic surgery, although Callister later discovered there were others in the Hocken Collections of the University of Otago - donated by Pickerill's family.

The UK archive has started Project Façade to air the images and the work of the plastic surgeons publicly, with a website and travelling exhibition, and Callister hopes the Hocken will do something similar here.

If it does, it will be a long way off, because the Hocken is still processing the material and has other collections it needs to digitise for the web first.

About 12% of all World War I combatants suffered facial wounds; a third of them were left permanently disfigured. Four photographs of one soldier, 25-year-old machine-gunner Corporal RB Fowler, open Callister's chapter on Gillies, Pickerill and the other plastic surgeons. Fowler might reasonably be described as having been "clipped" by artillery fire. Here is what it means to have been "clipped" (such an inconsequential-sounding word) - a gaping path of flesh carved out of the side of his face.

"His photographs have all the more power because of their unfamiliarity; they do not easily slot into any of the existing mental pictures we have formed of the Great War," writes Callister. "Images like these - close-ups of wounded soldiers - are conspicuously absent from our nation's war historiography, and for that matter the Allied war histories."

Sequestered away from the public eye in medical archives, the images are particularly valuable today, she believes, when so few of us have encountered such veterans in the flesh.

"Some things were known by New Zealanders at the time, and in a way they are now unknown. I have talked to old New Zealanders and they can look back on their childhood and remember meeting massively wounded and disfigured men. But that generation of New Zealanders who can remember those stories are now dying, so even that kind of link disappears in the end.

"They are very disturbing images. So when they do exist in the public domain, it comes with a lot of caveats. But I think because we talk about Gallipoli so much culturally, it's really important we have - to go back to my comment earlier - a nuanced understanding of sacrifice. It's not just dying. It's having the nation inscribed on your face. That's important for a younger generation to understand: that ultimately battles are fought on human flesh."

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