Face of War: New Zealand's Great War Photography

Face of War: New Zealand's Great War Photography

by Sandy Callister

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An authoritative history of combat photography and its cultural, emotional, and memorial roles, this collection is the first to examine the vernacular photos of World War I taken by its New Zealand participants. The book discusses how photography was used to capture and narrate, memorialize and observe, romanticize and bear witness to the experiences of New Zealanders at home and abroad. The first to argue for the importance of New Zealand photography to the history of war, this overview examines in depth the contradictions of war photography, as a site of remembrance and forgetting, nation and sacrifice, mourning and mythology, subjectivity and identity. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781775581802
Publisher: Auckland University Press
Publication date: 11/01/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 216
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Sandy Callister is an honorary research associate in the history department of the University of Auckland. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Auckland. She is the recipient of a number of awards and scholarships including the Kate Edger Post Doctoral Award.

Read an Excerpt

The Face of War

New Zealand's Great War Photography

By Sandy Callister

Auckland University Press

Copyright © 2008 Sandy Callister
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-77558-180-2


Photographing history: The forms and Idioms of New Zealand's War Photography

The Soldier's Kodak As small as a note book or diary and will tell a more interesting and convincing story of your share in the Great War story. – KODAK ADVERTISEMENT, OTAGO WITNESS, 28 JUNE 1916

The reason I have kept no photos on my person since I entered the trenches is just in case – well, that they might one day be found there and published in the papers as is often done – found on the etc, etc. I should hate such publicity and it is only sensitiveness to such sacrilege that would compel me to part with this picture of yours. It is a picture and I love it. I should like to send it home to mother – she is rather interested in the girl that shares so many things with her. So after all for these two reasons I shall be persuaded to part with my darling photo. But not yet a while. – HAROLD BELL, WESTERN FRONT, 31 JULY 1916

Technological advances, the surveillance needs of the military enterprise, the importance of medical photography in recording and cataloguing types of injury and surgical results, and the public's desire to see images of war ensured that photography was used in diverse and contradictory ways for a number of wartime audiences. This chapter surveys a number of these contrasting ways of seeing war, including Kodak snapshot photography, studio portraits, a Dunedin lantern slide project and medical photography. Representing differently conceived fields of vision, they offer different but forgotten vantage points from which to see this war. As Margaret R. Higonnet asks, 'Do we see war as an action, a time, a political and social process, or a place?' How we answer this question dictates what visual evidence we assemble (or leave out) in our quest to picture this war.

Kodak: the visual historian of the war

The nineteenth-century New Zealand photographic industry was part of the emerging Victorian mass market in visual culture. Photography shaped the way the Victorians imagined the world. Its development paralleled the expansion of the British Empire, which made the medium itself 'a powerful vehicle for the projection of imperial values'. New forms of photographic production, including stereoscopic images, lantern slides, cartes-de-visite and postcards, all allowed the Victorians to see, know and possess the world. James Ryan argues that 'the Victorian world was thus a distinctly graphic and visual production; a spectacle constructed as much from paper and glass as from bricks and iron'.

From 1882 to 1904, technological advances enabled less expensive hand-held cameras to replace the complicated tripod and cape cameras. This development, along with increasing prosperity and more leisure time, led to an upsurge of interest in photography. Sharland's New Zealand Photographer of 1911 listed fourteen photographic clubs and societies in the country, ranging from large cities to small towns. These organisations fostered inter-club competitions and intercolonial exhibitions, but their overriding focus was a shared understanding of photography as an art form. The limited evidence we have suggests that around 1910 camera clubs and photographic societies in New Zealand experienced a drop-off in membership. This coincided with another wave of technological innovation, which encouraged new types of camera enthusiasts. The Eastman 'Brownie' camera, introduced to the United States market in 1895, was available in New Zealand as early as 1901. The diffusion of inexpensive photographic technology both reflected and cultivated the desire for new kinds of photography, which 'changed from a privileged and time-consuming business to one of the most accessible means of visual representation'.

It was, however, the advent of the Kodak camera that revolutionised photography in New Zealand and created a mass market. Australian Kodak, formed in 1908, later changed its name to Kodak (Australasia) Pty. Limited, to include operations in New Zealand. In October 1915, Kodak began advertising the 'greatest photographic invention in twenty years', the first autographic cameras and films, which enabled the photographer to record information on the film at the time the picture was taken. By 29 December 1915, Kodak was promoting this new kind of camera as an integral part of all happy holiday occasions, a way of creating 'a lasting picture-record of all the happy moments of one's life', and, most important, as a record of the progress of one's children. Such messages continued unabated throughout the war years, but Kodak was also able to use the circumstances of war and the separation of loved ones to encourage the movement of photographs between the home front and the front line.

Kodak's promotion strategy in the New Zealand domestic market during the war years closely followed the model it employed in the United States: the camera was positioned as the visual historian of the household (Fig. 4). However, in New Zealand Kodak aggressively pursued the soldier market and argued for the camera being the visual historian of the war.

On 19 January 1916, the first Kodak advertisement directly targeting soldiers appeared in the Otago Witness (Fig. 5). Throughout the rest of the war, Kodak continued to promote its Vest Pocket Autographic camera as 'The Soldier's Kodak', with prices ranging from 35 to 55 shillings (with the Kodak Anastigmat F/7.7 lens), available from all Kodak dealers in Wellington, Auckland and Dunedin. Here was the convenient, easy-to-use camera with films obtainable in every country. Even in 1918, the advertisements for 'The Soldier's Kodak' repeatedly extolled its indispensability for the military man by consistently using the headline: 'Always with you. Never in the way.' More interestingly, Kodak actively advocated the superiority of a photographic record over other media. The advertisements reminded the public that 'The Soldier's Kodak' was the same size as a notebook or a diary but, more importantly, it would 'tell a more interesting and convincing story of your share in the Great War' (Fig. 6). A variation on this theme was the line: 'Take a soldier's Kodak with you and bring back your own priceless picture record of the Great War' (my italics) (Fig. 7).

At the same time, Kodak tirelessly promoted the argument that there could be no better way to strengthen the bonds between the home front and soldiers than by sending the troops photographs of the 'folks at home'. Kodak reminded readers of the Otago Witness that it only took half an hour to learn to operate an Autographic Kodak so that one could send 'Kodak pictures to your Soldier Friend'. The fullest expression of this argument was encapsulated in a Kodak advertisement placed in the New Zealand Herald.

'The Army lives on letters' is the way the boys at the front put it.

And when those longed-for envelopes with the home town postmark contain pictures of the home folks and home doings they go far toward making lighter hearts and happier faces.

Keep your Kodak busy for the sake of the lads in the trenches and the boys in the camp. Help keep tight the bonds between the home, and those who are fighting for that home.

The war years witnessed a significant increase in the number of cameras imported into the country. The case for the Kodak phenomenon is even stronger when one compares the figures for cameras from Britain and the United States. Up until 1914, Britain was clearly the dominant supplier. At the start of the war the British photographic trade had hoped to capture a significant share of the German market for photographic goods worldwide, but this ambition could not be realised because more and more factories were mobilised to assist the war effort. Kodak, as an American firm, was therefore ideally placed to capitalise on this growing mass market, and in fact supplied a very large part of the British market. Thus, by 1915, the United States as a source country was neck-and-neck with Britain. In 1916, the year Kodak began promoting the 'Soldier's Kodak' to the New Zealand market, the number of cameras imported from the United States more than doubled, and the figure continued to rise during the war.

Kodak used the war to enlarge its New Zealand market, selling cameras to the large numbers of young men travelling halfway around the world to the various combat zones, far from anxious families. But Kodak also helped to construct and preserve the family as a photographic memory and as a social unit. In too many instances, photographs were the last visible traces a soldier had of his family and vice versa. As we shall see in Chapter 6, further evidence of the way the war defined the photograph's meaning comes from soldiers' albums.

Wartime studio portraits – the perfect keepsake

In the early part of the twentieth century, formal family portraits made up a large proportion of all family photography. They recorded, solemnised and immortalised special relationships, occasions and rituals. Susan Sontag suggests that the importance placed on creating 'a portrait kit of images that bears witness to ... connectedness' coincided with a time of rapid change for families. The outbreak of war and the knowledge that the theatres of war were so far away contributed to the desire of New Zealanders to record their soon-to-be separated families. In wartime the studio portraits of soldiers were invested with shifting meanings. Their content may seem formulaic and repetitive now, but, like snapshots, they served a multiplicity of needs. Every family group could conceivably own a portrait of the soldier(s) in their family and so create both their own family gallery of 'heroic portraiture' and their own photographic mausoleum. And they could, in the absence of a body to grieve over, give a public face to their private grief. As we shall see in Chapter 4, many of these portraits made their way back into the public arena as evidence of both service to and sacrifice for one's country, and their memorialising function is the subject of Chapter 6. Here, however, the focus is on some of the unrecognised ways in which studio portraiture helped to frame the First World War as it happened.

Wartime studio portraiture met the needs of two geographically separated markets: the home front's desire to mark an absence and the frontline soldiers' desire to remember those they had left behind. Geoffrey Batchen's emphasis on a 'dynamic web of exchange' alerts us to the importance of uncovering the meanings with which these studio portraits were imbued within a variety of intimate as well as public settings. An image that appeared on page 33 of the Otago Witness a month after the war ended exemplifies this circularity (Fig. 8).

Five cropped studio portraits have been assembled to constitute a single, interconnected image. The caption reads: 'A Fine Family Record. Mrs. M. O'Donnell, 6 Braemar Street, South Dunedin, has four sons at the war – (1) Corp. J. O'Donnell, 33rd Reinforcements. (2) Pvte. Wm. O'Donnell, 47th Reinforcements. (3) Pvte. George O'Donnell, with the Australians, gassed. (4) Driver J. O'Donnell. Mrs. O'Donnell, Mother, in centre.'

The O'Donnell family photograph was one of many such images featured in the Witness over the course of the war. They testified to the patriotism and sacrifice of individual families. In this case, readers discovered to which wave of reinforcements each son was a part, whether any son was serving with other than New Zealand troops and which son had been gassed. Given that Mrs O'Donnell's street address was included, readers learned or had confirmed something about the mother's 'place' within the wider community, and were provided with the means of contacting her and getting more news of her sons. They learned about the cumulative toll this war exacted on individual families and the wider community. Readers could empathise with the O'Donnell family and many others like them. The community was imagined as a family and the family as a community.

Typically, these images depicted serving sons; only occasionally did they include a mother, as in the O'Donnell example, or, alternatively, a father. Daughters, however extensive their 'patriotic' work, were not depicted. Although photographs of New Zealand nurses sometimes appeared, no attempt was made to link the women back to their families. Absent or not, the parents were always the implied centre of these family groups. What can escape our notice is that someone in the family had compiled these photographic portraits, that they were displayed in the family home and that their physical presence kept far-flung soldier sons symbolically within the family. Such photographs also provided reassurance of family solidarity and endurance.

Published studio portraits proliferated throughout the war. As conscription took more men to war and casualty lists grew, more men posed for the camera before they departed and images moved between the home front and the battle front, between the public and private worlds. The published portraits, which depicted both the recently dead and the recently mobilised, were a tangible form of connection at a time of crisis.

One common type of studio portrait was that taken of soldier brothers (or less often, friends) reunited on leave. The photograph of the 'Three soldier sons of Mr. and Mrs. A. Brown, Raurekau, Milton' is typical (Fig. 9).

The caption explains that the three brothers had been reunited in Britain at Sling Camp, where New Zealanders trained before leaving for the Western Front, and that a fourth son was serving in Palestine. What compelled the Browns, and many others like them, to seek out a photographer's studio and present themselves as 'united in arms'? Did they want to possess some tangible reminder of their war service as siblings? Did the knowledge that one or all of them could die or be maimed add to the historic significance of the reunion? Perhaps they wanted simply to show that the family was still intact. Viewed collectively, such photographs also provide their subjects with a visual immortality.

The Quartermaine Album in the Alexander Turnbull Library allows us to glimpse another way in which the soldiers' studio portraits circulated during the war. The album consists entirely of postcard-sized reproductions of studio portraits of soldiers. It appears to have been increasingly common for soldiers on leave to commission studio portraits of themselves in postcard format. Multiple copies were ordered and, as this album demonstrates, exchanged with their fellows. The album was designed solely for this purpose, with each image taking up a page. In the corners of some photos the giver has signed 'Yours sincerely' and added his name, creating a variant on the autograph album. In these cases, there are no messages on the backs of the photographs. Quartermaine was an enthusiastic collector. The Turnbull holdings include his album of German postcards and another of sporting heroes. The wartime album includes soldiers as individuals, as brothers and as friends, all New Zealanders.

Frontline soldiers were just as keen to have in their possession photographs of their loved ones. This was the first modern war in which large numbers carried photographs of, by and from their loved ones into battle. As the German company Agfa advertised, 'The soldier can carry the homeland with him everywhere: Full of pride, he can show his comrades: my children.' In New Zealand Kodak was instrumental in encouraging this use of the photograph. On 8 March 1916, the Otago Witness ran a Kodak advertisement encouraging women to have their portraits taken and emphasising both emotional and practical considerations:

The One Gift that is Sure to Please a Soldier – Your Photograph Your friend or relative on active service will appreciate your Portrait. It is a personal greeting – it revives old memories and strengthens the bonds of love and friendship. Its value cannot be measured by its cost. A Photograph can be sent any distance as easily as a letter. — There's A Photographer In Your Town — Make an appointment for your Portrait now!

The recipients of these photographs clearly agreed with Kodak's copywriters. Numerous testimonies affirm that the portraits of loved ones that accompanied soldiers to the front or were sent to them were especially treasured. As Harold Bell told his sweetheart, her photograph was so precious and sacred that he was reluctant to carry it into action for fear that it be discovered on his body and published in the papers.

The very fate that Harold Bell so dreaded, that the photograph of someone he loved should be discovered upon his death, befell many others. These photographic mementoes were often placed in lockets and breast pockets, close to the heart, and accompanied soldiers into battle. Benjamin Marle, writing to the parents of his friend killed in the Sinai-Palestine campaign, mentions the 'watch, diary and photos, etc. ... with him in his tunic pocket'. The Otago Witness intermittently published a handful of such photographs found on bodies and sent back to New Zealand in the hope that they might be restored to their rightful owners. The headlines accompanying these photographs confirmed Bell's worst fears: 'Two Photos from the Somme battlefield (stained bullet holes can anyone identify them? Picked up by Private forwarded to mum)'; 'Photo of a girl picked up by a Southland soldier'. Moreover, some of these photographs were taken as souvenirs by the enemy, as one Witness headline showed: 'N.Z. girl. Taken from a German prisoner.'


Excerpted from The Face of War by Sandy Callister. Copyright © 2008 Sandy Callister. Excerpted by permission of Auckland University Press.
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Table of Contents


Introduction 'Mine Eyes Have Seen': Picturing the First World War,
One Photographing History: The Forms and Idioms of New Zealand's War Photography,
Two Gallipoli: Visual Traces and Interpretative Possibilities,
Three The 'Off-camera' Effect: Photography and the Western Front,
Four Stabat Mater Dolorosa: Death, Photography and Collective Mourning,
Five 'Broken Gargoyles': Photographic Representation of Severely Wounded New Zealand Soldiers,
Six 'Forbear to Cry': Presence/Absence in New Zealand Family Albums of the First World War,
Epilogue The Afterlife of War Photography,

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