From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Photography in the Great War
In July 20th's WW1 Centennial News Podcast, Episode 81, we focused primarily on photography: its effect on the war, a modern curation project, and even an addition to our vernacular. Corine Reis, a French public historian, spoke with host Theo Mayer about her WW1 photography blog, Waldo Pierce Goes to War. Later in the show, we dug into the importance of photography to military operations and personal photography among soldiers in WW1 Tech, and examined the word "snapshot." The following is a transcript of the interview, followed by WW1 Tech and Speaking WW1:
Theo Mayer: This week for Spotlight on the Media, we're revisiting one of the most interesting, thoughtful, and well-curated collections of World War I imagery out there on the internet. The blog Waldo Pierce Goes to War is curated by French public historian Corine Reis. We first talked about her blog back in Episode 61. Katherine introduced me to it, and I was truly taken in by Corrine's sensibility, especially showing images that I'd never seen before. Corine, welcome to the podcast.
Corine Reis: Bonjour, thank you for inviting me.
Theo Mayer: Corine, you started your blog not to explore photography about World War I, but to follow Waldo Pierce, a well-known American painter and a really colorful character. Could you give our audience a quick introduction to Waldo? And please tell us why you decided to document his World War I journey.
Corine Reis: I was introduced to Waldo because he was my husband's uncle. The family stories about Waldo fascinated me, and I started exploring his life more deeply. I discovered an incredible character that you find only in novels, an artist, a warrior, a family man, a real life explorer. His bravery at the Battle of Verdun with the ambulance service won him the Croix de Guerre. Then he became an official artist for the American government while doing intelligence work. To me, his journey represents all that I love about America -courage, strength, generosity- and I wanted to share that with other people.
Theo Mayer: Waldo was a friend of Hemingway's, and both men were volunteer ambulance drivers. What do you think made these people volunteer, and what do you think they had in common that made them go to war before the country did?
Corine Reis: Waldo, Hemingway, and all these young volunteers were college-educated, they read the papers and were well-informed about the situation in Europe and the looming danger of German imperialism. They were all driven by the American spirit, which is to protect the land, freedom, justice, democracy. For them it was a no-brainer, they just had to do the right thing. Without hesitation, they left their sweet American life to stand up for Europe. They truly walked the walk.
Theo Mayer: Well, I completely agree with you, and it was a really powerful movement. I wanna move along a little bit and talk about your photographs from the period. What struck me particularly was how the images that you're finding and posting show everyday life in wartime from different perspectives. How do you find these photos?
Corine Reis: Because I work in both English and French, I'm able to access more resources. The most important component of successful research is using the right keyword, and being able to use those in both French and English ... La Contemporaine, the magnificent French library, digitized the photographic treasures from World War I that were buried and made them public, and the photos add important and moving context to the American diaries from that era.
Theo Mayer: Your blog is wonderful. What's the most challenging thing for you about the project?
Corine Reis: My main challenge is a lack of time. Indeed, writing about such an enormous war can be intense and time consuming. I wish I had more time to write about black soldiers, women, children, pets, food, and of course, the all-important pinard, which is French slang for wine.
Theo Mayer: Beautiful. Now, we have a wonderful audience and a lot of them also speak French. What would you like to say to our audience in your native tongue?
Corine Reis: Ce blog est ma facon de remercier l'Amerique venue sauver mon pays. Je dis vive l'Amerique and vive la France.
Theo Mayer: So for our English speaking audience, what did you just say?
Corine Reis: This blog is my way to express my gratitude to America, which came to my country's rescue. I say long live America, long live France.
Theo Mayer: Corine, thank you so much for joining us.
Corine Reis: Merci, thank you so much for your wonderful work. Au revoir.
Theo Mayer: Au revoir, Corine. Corine Reis is a French public historian and the curator for the Waldo Pierce Goes to War blog. If you have any questions for Corine, you can tweet to us @theww1podcast, or follow the link in the podcast notes. We're gonna publish a few select images from Corine's collection on our Twitter channel @theww1podcast, so if you don't follow it yet, sign up. A lot of our stories have wonderful visual components to them, and that's where you'll find them.
Photography and the war had major influences on each other. In 1914, as the Germans streamed through Belgium towards France, pilots had seen the columns of invaders from the air. Now, they made estimations on the number of invaders, but the commanders just didn't believe that you could make such an accurate assessment from the sky. But soon after, the planes were outfitted with cameras and aerial reconnaissance grew into a major part of combat and strategy. The combination of these two relatively new technologies, the airplane and the camera, provided field commanders with a comprehensive map of the enemy positions and movements, as field dark room technicians started to stitch together dozens of images into comprehensive area maps. Now, there was a pattern here. Reconnaissance overflights preceded artillery bombardments, and artillery bombardments preceded ground offensives, a pattern that the soldiers began to recognize. And if you think about it, even though fighter plane aces were the noted, notorious knights of the sky, famed for engaging in dogfights, much of the time their actual job was protecting the recon planes. And in fact, those pilots and the specialized units that made sense of their photos probably had a greater impact on the war. On the ground, official war photographs and films were made by all sides. U.S. Signal Corps motion and still picture cameramen were assigned to every division and outfit of the American military, as well as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. These cameramen produced nearly 600,000 feet of film abroad, and in the United States the Signal Corps shot another 277,000 feet of film. The US Signal Corps documented an American war in an unprecedented fashion, preserving countless motion and still images for posterity; a huge boon to the Centennial as the Library of Congress has added troves of great digitized images and films to the publicly available resource. But the Signal Corps cameramen weren't the only ones on the ground with cameras. World War I started just after the introduction of a world-changing new camera, the vest pocket Kodak, or VPK. By 1914, war photography had actually been around for over a half a century. However, due to the tech limitations of the camera gear, pictures of war were mostly staged. According to military historian Joe Cooksy, 19th century war photographers were hampered by wet clay technology, with unwieldy cameras that needed long exposure times. This was not exactly ideal for capturing the chaos of war. But the 1912 Kodak Vest Pocket camera was small enough to carry, and anyone could take a picture. It quickly exploded in popularity, and reached the Front in 1914 with the first wave of British soldiers. Commanders were far from thrilled about this, as they wanted to control the public's vision of the war. After friendly images of Brits and Germans surfaced following the Christmas Truce of 1914, the British government banned portable cameras. Of course, this move didn't work. In contrast, the German authorities were fairly tolerant of personal photography in their ranks. In the US, the Kodak Company marketed the VPK specifically to soldiers, who brought them to France in droves. According to a Kodak advertising poster, the camera helped the soldier create, "History from their viewpoint." Now, this isn't just effective marketing, but a poignant statement regarding the significance of personal photography in wartime. So thanks to this new piece of photographic technology, soldiers, nurses, and civilians alike produced a massive collection of personal images, and were able to share their experience with us about the war that changed the world. Imaging and photography, this week's focus for World War I War Tech.
We're going to stay with our photo kick and reprise a word we featured in Episode 46: snapshot. Now, Americans have been known for their shooting prowess since the colonial and pioneer days. And in World War I, they continued to display their sharp shooting skills in the trenches. But shooting from a trench in war was quite different from shooting back home. Lifting your head up while taking careful aim at a target could get you killed, so when you went to fire, speed was key. Snapping up over the parapet, aim, fire, and drop became the standard procedure, which came to be known as the snapshot.The word snapshot had been used to describe a quick shot from a firearm during the 1800s, but came into much more frequent use during World War I. Around the same time, the word was then borrowed for another activity. As we mentioned in this week's World War I War Tech, this was the dawn of the portable camera era. Pop up a camera, aim, and fire, you've just taken a snapshot. A game emerged called "snap-shooting": a photographic version of tag where you tried to escape while someone chased you with a camera, trying to catch you on film. It was essentially a photographic version of hunting. Snapshot, see the podcast notes to learn more.