Photography, World War I

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The images now associated with World War I—of the slaughter in the trenches, of the disillusionment of the soldiers mired in the muck—did not emerge in the still photographs published during the conflict, thanks in large measure to the stifling censorship. No photographs were published during the war of sodden heaps of the American dead, nor the glazed eyes of the shell-shocked, nor even of the troops vaulting desperately out of the trenches. "At the end of one week's continuous fight [at Chateau-Thierry], in which the American troops were brilliantly engaged, only 24 still photographs had been received at the photographic laboratory from the various units on the fighting front," noted one of the censors at the time. "Even these pictures were very poor and did not indicate in any way that they were taken in a combat zone." What seems so disappointing about the World War I photographs is the near-total absence of either a sense of the horror or the thrill of the danger. With few exceptions—and those often turned out to be faked or staged pictures—the photographs that were allowed to pass the censor were mundane and uninspired.

military photography: training and equipment

The official photography of the war was largely the work of the Army Signal Corps, although the navy and the Marine Corps also appointed military photographers. The Signal Corps Photographic Section was created in July 1917, three months after the United States entered the war. By the end of the conflict in November 1918, 6,500 students were enrolled at the land and aerial photography schools, but few had completed their photography course and their one-month army training in time to be sent overseas before the Armistice. By that November there were 54 officers and 418 enlisted military photographers in France; most had already been photographers before the war, so had been able to be expedited through the process.

The standard still camera issued to the field units was the revolutionary 4 x 5-inch single-lens reflex Graflex. Introduced at the turn of the century, it made possible fast exposures and control over focus. Others carried 4 x 5-inch Speed Graphics. Depending on the available light, both could either be handheld or mounted on a tripod. Civilian photographers often traveled lighter with smaller 3 ¼ × 5 ½-inch roll-film cameras.

The Signal Corps photographic units took pictures primarily for military and "educational" use. Aerial photography taken with the fledgling Air Service greatly enhanced the ability of the army to gain information about the enemy lines. Images taken by all the units were pressed into service in the education of the raw recruits and to serve as propaganda for the public.


World War I began in 1914 as a grand pastime and ended four years later as a grand massacre. The censorship echoed that metamorphosis. From August 1914 to June 1915, the journalistic coverage as well as the censorship was cavalierly handled. It was not so much that American correspondents could go anywhere, see anything, and report whatever they wanted, but that the rules to limit the journalists were not always evenly applied or without loopholes. Unscrupulous correspondents and publications also passed on rumors and propaganda—often with the tacit approval of the Allied censors—which resulted in the undermining of the media's reputation for factual and balanced reporting.

By the summer of 1915 the unrelenting butchery in the trenches had already begun, and so came the need for the governments on all sides to hide what was happening. Most journalists were not allowed anywhere near the front, and many American reporters and photographers—who were still neutral, since the United States had not entered the war—went home in frustration. American correspondents who attempted to get to the front by stealth faced severe punishment: the United Press reporter who managed to get to the frontlines in Italy was told when he was taken into custody that he could remain there, "but if you do we'll be forced to shoot you." The famous photographer Jimmy Hare observed that "to so much as make a snapshot without official permission in writing means arrest."

When the United States became a belligerent in April 1917, the focus of the American media naturally shifted to the American role in the conflict. Many reporters and photographers were called home to follow the training of the troops over the spring, summer, and fall. By July 1917, press bases of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) were established in France. Fifty American, Allied, and neutral journalists were accredited to the AEF—twenty-one were American print reporters, and the remaining twenty-nine were American photographers and artists and the non-American press. That number expanded in the summer of 1918 as the AEF significantly entered the fighting.

Through the AEF, accredited photographers were authorized to travel within the zone of the U.S. Army—a greater flexibility that encouraged many of the major photographic services (including Underwood and Underwood, Keystone View Company, Brown Brothers, Harris and Ewing, and Kadel and Herbert) in the United States to send over representatives. Once the system was in place, the civilian photographers sent home, in total, several hundred pictures a week, and the military sent back fifty or so for publication. In the three months from May to July 1918, the censors approved 1,650 photographs for use by the media.

But the marginally greater latitude, beginning in 1917, to travel to take photographs did not result in any greater candor in the images that emerged. Censors subjected the photographs to two oppressive levels of scrutiny: 1), photographs could not depict any subject that would give the enemy useful information, a limitation that was interpreted to mean that any insignia that could be recognized as belonging to an identifiable outfit and any identifiable locale would prevent a photograph from being passed; and 2), photographs could not depict subjects that would affect the "morale" of either the soldiers or the homefront, which meant that photographs could not depict wounded or dead Americans, wrecked airplanes or other U.S. materiel, or even soldiers in improper uniform.

By 1918 the photographers of World War I had seen too much to remain pro-war, although most continued to back the U.S. war effort. By Armistice, both the glorying in war and the naïve enthusiasm for the coverage of it were irrevocably in the past. Then, in the late 1920s and 1930s, as a new generation worried about war on the horizon, the antiseptic vision of World War I was exposed. Horrific images emerged of the dead in the trenches and the living dead with disfiguring wounds. The documents of what had actually happened at the front served to reinforce Americans' isolationism and made it difficult for President Franklin Roosevelt to argue for U.S. entry into a new European conflict.

Susan Moeller

See also:Propaganda, War; Visual Arts, World War II.