Wednesday, February 14, 2018

War Exposures (2018)

Book Review from the February 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Vest Pocket Kodak & the First World War.' By Jon Cooksey (Ammonite £7.99)

The first war photograph dates from 1846, and there were further photos of the Crimean War and the American Civil War. But the technology was cumbersome, and the scenes often had to be staged. Then in 1912 Kodak produced a smaller portable camera, the Vest Pocket Kodak or VPK (‘vest’ being American for ‘waistcoat’). This became extremely popular, including among those in the armed forces in the First World War. Never one to miss a marketing trick, the company advertised it as ‘The Soldier’s Kodak’.

Soldiers photographed scenes from the trenches and of actual fighting with their VPKs, but of course it was never going to be an uncontroversial or straightforward activity. The first action shot published, in November 1914, was doctored with a bursting shell added to increase the apparent danger to soldiers who were under shrapnel fire. In June 1915, a private from the Liverpool Scottish Regiment photographed soldiers advancing on a captured German trench near Ypres. When it was published the following month, an image of a German soldier (lying apparently dead) replaced that of a dead or wounded British soldier.

The Christmas Day truce of 1914 was depicted in some blurred photos of soldiers from both sides chatting and exchanging cigarettes. This did not go down well with the powers that be, as it made the Germans look human, and a limited ban on cameras was extended in March 1915 to cover all operational theatres, though it was not enforced as strictly as it might have been.

Cooksey also includes a photo (of unknown date and location) of ‘what appears to be the summary execution of a suspected spy by two British army officers with service revolvers.’ 
Paul Bennett