Frank Hurley and Hubert Wilkins became the only two Australian professionals formally commissioned as war photographers in WW1. Along with five French professional photographers, Hurley and Hubert were pioneers in the creation of coloured war images. Coloured images were becoming possible in civilian life and these men wanted to reflect the battlefields and towns of the Western Front more accurately.
George Clemenceau visited the 4th Australian Division Headquarters at Bussy France,
Today the Australian War Memorial in Canberra has the total collection of commissioned Australian war photography from 1917-8. The Canberra archive assembled a selection of this major collection of photos in a booklet called Captured in Colour, edited by Nola Anderson and Ian Hodges.
The editors noted that while the colour plates could not be readily incorporated into printed formats, they could be used to present slide shows in public venues in Australia, while the war was still in progress. Hurley and Wilkins themselves wanted to create dramatic, staged shots or even trick photography, to enlist public support at home. They thought they could excite the public imagination for a war that was now dependent on conscription, despite conscription being opposed by half the adult population in Australia. Edwardian Promenade has confirmed the importance of magic lantern shows in bringing the news to cinemas everywhere.
Lighthorseman picking memorial flowers,
But who had thought of dramatic presentations in Australian scout halls and mechanics’ institutes as the goal for taking war photographs? Certainly not the important Australian war correspondent, Charles Bean. He planned to use the Hurley’s and Wilkin’s photographs as historical evidence, “a sacred record” of people and events. This record would allow the soldiers’ children and grandchildren to see what had happened in the 1914-8 era.. with plain, simple truth.
This divergence of goals created a problem. And in any case, what were they to photograph? Images of young Australian corpses would have been totally unacceptable politically and would have been devastating to the grieving parents and widows at home. Likewise, images of German teenage corpses would have left Australians with an image of their boys as callous beasts. So most of the photographs were of Australian soldiers and their allies at rest from the last battle, rehearsing for the next battle, mixing with local citizens in towns along the Western Front or architecture devastated by the two warring armies.
Note that Hurley did take some images of active battle, including photos of corpses - in Behind the News blog. And in 2008 two of Hurley photographs, that depicted the horrors of trench warfare, were acquired by the NGV in August from a Sydney collector. But these photos were never intended to be used for public lectures.
Hurley was in Palestine in late 1917, taking photographs of Australian cameliers, camel ambulances, Light horsemen, Jerusalem architecture and local citizens in cities/villages. The capture of Jerusalem in Dec 1917 ended 400 years of Ottoman rule, and was cheered enthusiastically by all the Jewish citizens. Hurley did not record how the Arab citizens responded to the British success.
Australian Cameliers in Egypt,
Hurley’s colour images greatly impressed an eager public in London in May 1918 when an exhibition of official war photographs was held at the Graftan Galleries. So I can understand why Hurley resigned his commission in July 1918, very unhappy that the Grafton Galleries Exhibition was not to be sent directly to Australia.
Hubert Wilkins continued to document the AIF experience, even after the final shots of the war had been fired. In January 1919, Wilkins joined Charles Bean and his men on the Gallipoli Mission, retrospectively examining the ANZAC area and its famous 1915 campaign. As I noted in a previous post, artist George Lambert was the important partner with Wilkins as a documenter of the ANZAC campaign.
Squadrons of the 4th Australian Light Horse Brigade in formation,
Palestine, Feb 1918
ABlogAboutHistory refers readers to some very moving WW1 photos. The majority of these images are held by Gallica, the digital wing of the Bibliothèque National de France. Although the provenance of the photos is uncertain, it is thought they may be autochromes taken by the French photographer, Jean-Baptiste Tournassoud. History and traditions of England blog has amazing photos of show troops from America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and India in the UK, before leaving for the fighting front – mostly in France.
Monash University noted photographs were an inseparable part of our memory of war. They have come to play a vital role in our efforts to remember and to commemorate events of which we have no direct experience. Only people in their 60s now can remember what their grandfathers told them about The Great War. And while photos can’t bring home the terrible experience of war, they can provide us with images that at least indicate something of its horror. Monash's latest exhibition, Icon & archive, drew on the collection of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. The exhibition in April-July 2010 included many iconic photographs that have become lodged in Australia's national memory. And some that we could see for the first time.
Monash University's exhibition literature had this sensitive studio portrait of an unnamed World War One soldier, complete with greatcoat, slouch hat and Australian army insignia. But who was he and what happened to him?
And now a completely different collection of WW1 photographs. The Bendigo RSL Military Museum and Eaglehawk Heritage Society in central Victoria mounted an amazing exhibition of WW1 photos called A Camera on the Somme in 2009. From the Bendigo Art Gallery, the exhibition went on tour around Australian galleries during 2010 and is still travelling in 2011.
Where did the Bendigo photos come from? Two young brothers from central Victoria, Jack and Bert Grinton, found themselves serving in the trenches of France and Belgium. 90 years later, an extraordinary find came to light. Inside a biscuit tin stored for decades in a shed on the Grinton farm – and headed for the rubbish tip – was a large collection of negatives and photographs; images taken by Jack and Bert Grinton between 1916 and 1919 with the cameras they carried with them during the war.
Australian soldiers and French children, 1918,
Bendigo RSL Military Museum
This collection is a unique addition to the historical record, for two reasons. Firstly it captured people and places often overlooked by official war photographs. Secondly it highlighted the development and artistry of amateur photography.
The booklet called Captured in Colour, edited by Nola Anderson and Ian Hodges, has since been expanded to include WW2. It has come out as a book called Australian War Memorial: Treasures from a Century of Collecting, edited by Nola Anderson and published by Murdoch Books in 2012. Anderson headed a team of the institution's experts to choose examples from a HUGE collection of items, reaching right back into colonial times.