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Photography: First World War, 1914–1918

Art Gallery of Ontario

World War I is recognized as a period of mass violence and destruction, but also as a beginning. The war ushered in technological innovation, mechanizing and recording war in ways previously impossible. The growing pervasiveness of photography resulted in a war well-documented by military officials, press agencies, and amateurs. The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) holds nearly 500 albums from this period, a unique and extensive collection donated in 2004 by a private collector. The albums reveal different aspects of the relationship between warfare and photography; retrospectively, all of them—personal, official, and commercial—engage in a dialogue with history by presenting unique visual narratives that uphold or challenge historical perceptions of war. The breadth of albums and accounts—British, French, German, Canadian, Austrian, American, Australian, Italian, Czech, and Russian—expose the multiplicities of experience as well as the commonalities of war.

To mark the centenary of the end of World War I, the AGO is hosting two exhibitions featuring this remarkable collection. This first iteration* highlights the technological advancements that made this war the first to be experienced on a global scale. The demand for aviation technology, both as a means for aerial reconnaissance and later for combat, propelled its research and development. Photography became a weapon: aircraft were equipped with cameras that captured the views below, providing intelligence and informing strategy. Highlighted throughout the exhibition are panoramas and aerial mosaics shot from the sky. These photographic objects were once functional in purpose; now, they appear as exceptional examples of early, experimental photographic techniques, valued as much for their aesthetic innovation as for their usefulness.

Portraits of airplanes are featured in the exhibition in many forms. Professional and technically exquisite photographs focus on aircraft parts, exposing the prestige surrounding aviation technology. Amateur photographs of the impressive airplanes and zeppelins, meanwhile, are often captured from the ground, silhouetted against the sky, and occasionally from the air, through cloudy landscapes. Photographs of crashed planes are also on display; these scenes proved popular with the opposing sides, who sought evidence of their enemy’s weakness. The movement of war into the sky was an evolution in warfare. Nations applauded their Flying Aces—successful combat pilots—for their bravery and skill. Portraits of these distinguished pilots were kept in personal albums and circulated as Ace cards at home, celebrating the pilots’ status as national treasures and war heroes.

In previous wars, photographers had been commissioned and the photographs were staged or retrospective. However, at the turn of the 20th century, compact cameras and roll film found their way into the hands of amateurs. These technically imperfect snapshots, taken by both civilians and soldiers, express a humanity, beauty, and vulnerability; they reveal the familiar of the everyday and the horror of war. The collection of personal albums on display demonstrates the consideration in the creation of these objects and the juxtaposition of photographs exposes the scope of experience that occurs during war. Photographs of loved ones may be paired with images of destruction and death. Captions reveal the creator’s intention or memories, allowing visitors to get lost in any number of narratives. Although soldiers were quickly forbidden from photographing the Front, many of these albums demonstrate that soldiers found it worth the risk, and that the desire to record and remember was greater than the fear of punishment.

A gallery adjacent to the main display is dedicated to Australian war photographer James Francis “Frank” Hurley (1885 – 1962), who was on official assignment throughout World War I. His album Australian Units on the Western Front (1914 – 1918) presents a series of compelling photographs, each offering insight into different aspects of life on the Front. Soldiers, in action and at ease, are pictured, as well as the grimmer realities of war: casualties, scorched landscapes, and destroyed architecture. The album—disassembled for the exhibition—highlights Hurley’s skill as a photographer and features a rich breadth of imagery.

This exhibition presents visitors with an unusual opportunity to explore these photographic objects that construct a history of aerial technology and photography, which influenced the operation and outcome of World War I. Many of these photographs were developed confidentially or illicitly and comprise a visual record of war that is often left unseen. Together, they contributed to the beginning of a visual consciousness of war that resonates to this day.

Organized by and presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario.

*the second iteration featuring more material from the collection will be on view November 10, 2018 to April 14, 2019.


Curated by Samuel Bernier-Cormier, Victoria Masters and Emily Miller with Sophie Hackett and Julie Crooks
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