Four Questions for Brennan Gauthier
"The men and women captured in my portrait collection have unique stories that are all but lost to history"
By Chris Isleib
Director of Public Affairs, United States World War One Centennial Commission
Everyone in our community possesses an interest in World War I history. One of our favorite things at the Commission is to see the different, incredible, ways that this interest manifests itself. We recently came across Brennan Gauthier, who has a remarkable example of bringing his interest into unique format. For his regular job, Brennan is a Senior Archaeologist for the State of Vermont Transportation Department. Privately, he writes and manages PortraitofWar.com, a blog site that examines World War I photography - Specifically the photo portraiture of the time. Brennan looks at the styles, the milieu, the contexts for the pictures. But then, he takes things a step further. Brennan does deep-dive looks into the subjects — their uniforms, their decorations, their units, etc. Brennan will even track down their genealogy and their grave sites, all in the name of exploring/learning who these people were, and what their experiences were. We were thrilled that Brennan gave us some time to talk about his work with PortraitofWar.com.
You have a remarkable blog site, dealing with WWI military portraits. Tell us about it, and what you are doing.
Thank you for the wonderful compliment. The main focus of Portraits of War is to present portrait photos of soldiers, marines and sailors of World War One (as well as other wars) that I’ve collected over the past ten years. Many of the men and women captured in my portrait collection have unique stories that are all but lost to history. The goal of my site it to retell these stories, to whatever extent possible, and make them available to a larger audience.
Tell us about your interest in this unique topic. How did you get started? How did it grow? When did it turn into a blog?
My interest in historic photography stems from a deep passion for family history. I can remember as a child going through my grandparents’ attic trunks wondering who the sepia-toned men and women in the images were. My specific interest in military history stemmed from discovering my grandfather’s snapshot collection from his time as a tank driver in WWII.
As a young teen I would buy old military photos at local yard sales and try to figure out who the soldiers were and what they did during their service. I carried this through college and eventually began buying similar shots on internet auction sites to feed my passion when yard sales weren’t enough. I decided to create the blog after graduate school as a way to continue my writing and research as well as to curate and document the images in a digital format.
Your interest carries beyond the images themselves, and goes into the genealogy, into the service, into their places in history. What aspects of the images do you learn most from? How do you derive context about the subjects?
For each image that I highlight on my blog I spend roughly three to four hours researching the soldier’s background using written information on the back of the photograph. Because many of these images are actually printed on postcard paper, which was a common practice in the early 1900s, I am able to research both the sender and the recipient of the postcard. I can usually confirm the identity of the soldier by cross-checking with the details included on the soldier’s uniform. Details such as wound stripes, divisional patches, collar insignia and service stripes are all helpful with making a final identification. Sometimes I can even track down a school yearbook photo to nail down a 100% accurate identification.
What memorable things, or personally-resonating things, have you learned about these people, who fought in this war 100 years ago?
I’ve really enjoyed making personal connections with the families of the soldier’s I’ve researched. In one instance, I was researching a signed photograph of Sgt. Alex Arch, the first US soldier to fire at the Germans during the war. Eventually, I was able to get in touch with a family member of Sgt. Arch who shared with me stories of visiting the gun that Arch fired on that fateful day as well as sending me digital photos of the Arch’s uniform and helmet. On another occasion, I tracked down the family of a US Marine who was shot through both eyes by a sniper. The family was so happy that I reached out with the photo that they sent me a Christmas present that year. It’s real world connections like these that keep me doing what I do.
Read more on the Portrait of War web site here:
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