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Prussians in the Frame: Brownies Out August 22, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary , trackback

Beach often shows his students WW1 and WW2 photographs in class. He lets the effect wash over them and then breaks that effect by asking them why the photograph is staged. For most of the best shots from the world wars are the invention or, at very best, the ‘reconstruction’ of photographers who were far too sensible to step into the line of fire: one of the clues that many photographs are fictitious is that that is precisely where the photographer is standing. Bang, bang you’re dead… Another good clue are if the soldiers are theatrically pointing their rifles/revolvers/bazookas at the enemy over there, while looking at the camera over here.

Above is a rare authentic example from the Battle of Mons, 1914. Mons was the battle that in some ways ‘sets’ the First World War. It is the first proof that the Germans could be held or at least slowed: the British inflicted heavy casualties and then withdrew in order till when they – with the French – finally broke the German attack on the Marne, saving Paris and civilisation (discuss). It was after Mons and the Marne that WW1 froze into the joyless struggle, a rather different affair from the mechanised joust with steely Camelots imagined by all those young men lining up at recruitment stations. Sabres and horses out, spades and heavy artillery in.

It is the picture’s very lack of drama that is perhaps the most important imprimatur of its genuineness. Beach says ‘lack of drama’, in fact, follow the line of sight and you will see a row of men who look as if they are working in the field. Au contraire, they are the finest soldiers in the world jogging at the British trenches: trenches here meaning light depressions that give no more cover from bullets than silk sheets. The unusual angle skews the picture too, but in an interesting way. It adds to the sense of menace as the Germans are about to outflank the Tommies whose tilted heads give sense to the photograph. Beach has looked and looked but has failed to find many photographs of the enemy in the heat of battle: planes and ships and dead bodies (or disintegrating bodies) don’t count, drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

Also an afterthought. If you had Berlin’s finest running at your ‘trenches’ would you take out your brownie and start snapping shots? Remember this is long before the Daily Beast gave ten thousand for the right photograph. This couldn’t be a fake too could it?

And the archers? Another post, another day.

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31 August 2012: Southern Man considers: I think this picture is genuine but misunderstood. I just can’t believe those are German soldiers running at the British. I think you would see the Tommy marksmen in tenser positions and perhaps signs of smoke. Isn’t it more likely that we are seeing here is a British withdrawal or a British repositioning and the Germans are actually British troops moving back?’ Beach has to admit that these are striking arguments. Any other thoughts? Wade writes ‘I’m no expert on this at all, but war photography has been something of an interest for me. Maybe it was all those WWII Holywood movies that I grew up watching on TV in the 50s and 60s. I think many, if not most, of the American Civil War photographs were staged to some degree. Not sure about WWI. But I do know that US combat photographers in WWII were just that; professionals recording combat at the front. Surely there were images that were staged even then. (The recreation of the flag raising on Iwo Jima and Gen. McArthur wading ashore in the Phillipines come to mind), but I believe the US military has a huge archive of non-staged WWII combat photography. I’ve read that some of the photos, whether in action or just after, were never shown to the public because they were too graphic and intense. Also, I remember reading that the there was a difference between photographs released from the Pacific Theater and the European Theater, and this was attributed to racial war propaganda that the Japanese were inhuman, so gruesome pictures of their war dead were allowed.’ Thanks Wade and SM!