Writing on photography

War, Photography, Memory

Today is the anniversary of the armistice which ended the First World War, and next year will mark the centenary of the start of that conflict. Already radios and televisions thunder with the crash of the guns, while a growing number of websites display galleries of photographs of the time. As well as being the first modern war in the sense of it’s scale and destruction, The First World War was the first to be extensively photographed. Previous wars had been documented to some degree, starting in the 1850’s with Carol Popp de Szathmàri and the rather better known Roger Fenton, who both photographed during the 1853-56  Crimean War. However as this new conflict marked an up scaling in violence, it was also documented to an entirely unprecedented extent.

The effort to document the First World War partly reflected contemporary concerns, such as the need to explain and justify the conflict to civilians at home. However this documentation was also connected to the long term project of memorialising that we are witnessing today, and which is embodied in national iconography like the Cenotaph, and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Already in the midst of war there was a sense of the need to remember, which led for example to the creation of the Australian War Records Section in 1917, a unit within the army responsible for the collection of artefacts and accounts that related to the Australian experience of the war. The idea of establishing the United Kingdom’s Imperial War Museum, with its vast archive of war photographs, also dates from the same year and had similar underlying motivations.

As the maturation of existing technology allowed lives to be ended on such a scale that a single battle might claim as many lives as had in the past been lost to an entire war, so too did it allow for those deaths to be recorded as never before. I, and many others before me, have noted the intimate relationship that existed (and still exists) between the technologies of seeing and killing. For example the shared application of nitro-cellulose as film base (nitrate film) and gun propellant (gun cotton) or the technical and operational similarities between the first hand cranked machine guns and the early movie cameras which were increasingly fielded during this conflict.

The photographic technology of the early twentieth century was still basic, but where Fenton had grappled half a century earlier with cumbersome cameras, fragile glass negatives and the need for mobile darkrooms, his successors like the Australian Frank Hurley could make use of relatively portable cameras, faster emulsions and films which could wait to be developed. Advances like these allowed documentation on an industrial scale, but also made possible a new proximity (in space and time) to unfolding events. Where Fenton had photographed dormant cannonballs lying alongside a road, his descendants photographed flying planes, exploding mines, sinking ships, dying soldiers.

From the war then emerged many, many photographs with disparate purposes. The Imperial War Museum photo archive for example returns nearly 140,000 results for the search term ‘first world war’. These range from press photographs, to aerial reconnaissance images, to medical photographs, to pictures of the home front. Many others exist scattered throughout the world, in smaller collections, as personal keepsakes, family hand-me-downs and so forth. In most cases these images have been stripped from their original purpose, and now their significance is almost entirely historical.

The value of photographs for the purposes of memorialisation comes to be in their ability to apparently act as stored memories, to seemingly impart some knowledge of events we have not ourselves experienced. We can view these images, and ‘remember’ what no one alive remembers first hand. While often treated as analogous to memory, photographs are simultaneously lauded for their ability to overcome the limitations of memory. While people misremember, forget, die, the photograph apparently remains as it was the day it was taken.

‘Never forget’ is the refrain of war memorialists, but forgetting is gradual and inevitable, and even the photograph forgets. Prints fade before the light. Some retain traces of the developing chemicals, continuing in effect to expose throughout their lifespan, a perversion of the process that brought them into being in much the same sense that a cancerous cell is a perversion of the normal processes of life. And digital images, for all their promises of immaterial immortality remain tied to their notoriously fragile storage media. Equally they can become corrupted and artefacted (an appropriate technological loan word) through repeated saving, becoming the in the process as foggy and uncertain as the memories they replace.

And for all the images in archives, this existence might be considered a form of forgetting. Those photographs that are shown in public are relatively few and often repeated. A tiny canon of images intended to reflect a vast event, experienced individually and subjectively by millions of people. A forest of shattered matchstick trees and churned up mud, a firing artillery piece, a line of blind soldiers with hands on each other’s shoulders. Even in looking to replace this tired canon with more informative photographs, I am struck by how few I am able to remember and retain. in the end the old set is just replaced by a new, equally small one. A dazed Landwehr looking vacantly at the camera, a hand clutching a dove emerging from the armour of a tank, an x-ray of a bullet embedded in a man’s skull.

Forgetting is unavoidable. In time it seems inevitable that these images in all their verisimilitude will eventually boil down to one defining photograph, and then eventually perhaps nothing. That despite all our efforts at recording, an event of this size will eventually become just an obscure name, perhaps a date remembered by only a few specialists and in a few archives. Finally just a single photograph will remain, housed in a dusty and seldom viewed box, showing perhaps an unnamed of monolith of long forgotten use.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography