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It’s not right to pick out just a dozen

December 10, 2008

Yesterday I spent the morning in the photo archive of our national museum of modern history, looking at WW I photographs to go with my piece on war photography for the next issue of Fotografija magazine. It was not as bad as you might assume considering the subject matter.
Museum’ photo collection of the war comes from some thirty private albums and collections so there was a great variety of styles and motifs. Some were done in traditional painting style, using narrative tableaus, others showed advanced mastering of camera with their idealised and aestheticised silhouettes and landscapes, and there was of course, a fair share of awkwardly posed group snapshots. There were however quite a few which departed from the predominantly static aesthetics, foreshadowing the dynamism of 1920’s and 1930’s reportage/photojournalism style (unusual angles, close ups, dynamic framing etc.)
Another striking thing – which BTW is precisely the point of my article – is that there were almost no photographs of dead. There is a bit more of death in those from the southern front (could be taken as indicator of social and cultural distance but I won’t go into that), but all and all, these albums are about life, not death.
Lots of other things could be read from the photographs, like just how much the Great War was in fact a class war. And I don’t mean just the difference between officers and soldiers but also the difference between different ranks of military, like infantry vs. aviation. A series of images of aviators was particularly telling: stretched out on a set of different war booty upholstered armchairs, they really looked like they were above it all, even while on the ground.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 12, 2008 1:06 am

    I find the First World War fascinating. It was really the giant change that transformed our western world and ended an ancient system of class. Though class distinctions undeniably still exist today, they are pale ghosts compared to what was here before.

    I recall reading about how in the British regulars, if you were a junior officer, where you could stand, who you could talk with and even what kind of cigarette you smoked was dictated by where you stood in the social order. The War changed all that. A horrific way to effect change, but it undeniably did.

    -Turkish Prawn

  2. December 16, 2008 1:49 pm

    I suspect that most infantrymen from any army in the world come from the poorest and least educated parts of their societies.

    I’ll be writing an article for my blog soon, about how I spent a night on an American army base back in the early 1980s with soldiers that were either stoned, drunk or tripping on LSD.

    The gist of my post will be that the army is full of poor people, that those in power see as disposable.

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