The First World War

November 11, 2015
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Lost German Zeppelin, slightly hovering above a field of French peasants, October 1917. Photo by: Albert Moreau. Credit: ECPAD/France/Albert Moreau.

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The first Armistice Day, which celebrated the one-year anniversary of the end of hostilities on the Western Front, and ultimately, the conflict-based dissolvement of World War I, took place on November 11, 1919, and marked that moment a year earlier, the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. Fast forward nearly a century. Desensitized via the ubiquity of war photography and new forms of media circulation to the strangeness, the horrors, the portrayal of foreign terrain, and the shocks of bearing witness to conflict, we can point to any number of examples of now classic photojournalism that portray the terror of warfare in the twentieth and twenty-first century, including work by Robert Capa, Joe Rosenthal, Nick Ut, Gary Knight, Benjamin Lowy, and Ashley Gilbertson.

The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front is different. Carl De Keyzer’s meticulous reconstruction of photographs—including many authentic color images, the result of early autochrome technology—makes available glimpses of the First World War, as never seen before. We’re accustomed to grainy, scratched, blurred images in monochrome of the devastation of trench warfare, but these images, taken by some of the war’s most gifted photographers producing glass plate images in lieu of film from crude cameras, offer more distinct moments: from Belgian soldiers in training to African colonial troops on the Western Front, from the everyday minutiae of civilians’ lives to women making 75mm shells on the assembly line in the factory in Saint-Chamond, all accompanied by an Introduction from Geoff Dyer and an essay by historian David Van Reybrouck.

More of De Keyzer’s process is explained in an interview between Getty curator Nancy Perloff and De Keyzer at Places:

My team and I searched all over Europe — all over the world, in fact. We discovered that original negatives are available for fewer than five percent of the existing images. Most were destroyed during or after the war; some were recuperated for the silver used in the old collodion process, and many were simply badly treated or lost.

We made a list of about fifty different museums and collections worldwide, which over the course of several years we visited or contacted. These included the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Hoover Institution, in the United States; the War Office/National Archives, in the United Kingdom; the Musée Albert-Kahn, in Paris; the Bundesarchiv, in Berlin; and many places in Belgium. I spent weeks hunting through wooden boxes with dust-covered glass plates and containers packed with old prints, and poring through old albums. Most museums have not even begun to archive and digitize these collections.

We posed two key questions to the archival institutions. Could we scan the originals? And then would they allow me to restore the originals according to my own professional standards and personal perspectives? Only a few museums responded affirmatively to both questions.

And from a recent profile of the book in the Telegraphwhich teases some of the book’s content:

These images were taken between 1914 and 1921, in places of which we have likely never heard, by photographers – Tournassoud, Aubert, Moreau, Antony, Gimpel, Castelnau – whose names are unfamiliar. Here, male and female factory workers weld fins to mortar grenades, or stack thousands of mess tins. Red-trousered regiments bathe almost leisurely in a pond, in a scene that recalls the pastoral idylls of Giorgione or Manet; a bugle hangs on a nearby tree. Elsewhere, children look on as soldiers parade in country fields, or play at airmen and prisoners on the streets of Paris.

To read more about The First World War, click here.

To see sample pages from the book, click here.

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Also, today we continue the 2015 University Press Week blog tour. Read up on previous contributions from member presses here, and in the meantime, look for some great posts on the history of university press design from Northwestern University Press, Princeton University Press, MIT Press, the University of Kansas Press, Georgetown University Press, Syracuse University Press, Stanford University Press, Harvard University Press, Athabasca University Press, and finally, Yale University Press.

To read more about 2015 University Press Week, click here.

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