Kodaking War: Photographs as Art?

by | Jul 6, 2020 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 2 comments

by Sarah Hart

This article is part of the Canadian Military History Colloquium Web Series, created to provide an online space for papers which otherwise would have been presented at the 31st Canadian Military History Colloquium, if not for this year’s cancellation due to the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Sarah Hart is finishing her Master of Arts in History at Western University. Her MA thesis, entitled “Muddying the Lens: First World War Photographs and the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” examines private and official photographs as artistic mediums. She will be continuing her research as a PhD student at Carleton University in Fall 2020. Her other research interests include conflict art, twentieth century Canadian photography, and public history. In addition to her studies, Sarah is also the Social Media Manager for Wartime Canada.

When starting my research into First World War photographs in May 2019, I was struck by two things. The first was that despite the 4,705 war photographs produced by the Canadian War Records Office during the war (now held at Library and Archives Canada), there were only a few hundred images that made their way into books, magazines, postcards and our twenty-first century visual memory of the war. Why has our visual understanding of the war been dominated by a small portion of these images? The second thought was part of an ongoing series of questions born after visiting an exhibition entitled “Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War” held at the University of Calgary Founders’ Gallery in early 2018.[i] The exhibition was comprised of paintings and sketches. The only photograph was taken by Arthur Lismer of the SS Olympic, which was positioned beside his painting Olympic with Returned Soldiers and left me wondering how have other photographs been displayed next to First World War paintings.

How have Canadian war photographs been understood as their own artistic medium? This essay will first explore how other historians have understood war photography and provide a brief history of the Canadian War Records Office and its official photographers’ aesthetic approaches to photography. Finally, it will discuss how the Grafton Galleries exhibitions of 1917 and 1919 opened up the possibility of allowing the photographs to be perceived as an artistic medium, as well was how they served as a continuation of other artistic trends in the early twentieth century.

There have been some extensive studies on First World War art, but few have drawn connections between paintings commissioned during the war and the official war photographs produced by the Canadian War Records Office. Laura Brandon has forged connections between Arthur Lismer and A.Y. Jackson’s wartime experiences and their art. Her book, Art at the Service of War: Canada, Art and the Great War, examined Canadian War paintings as sites of memory and cultural expression. Others have discussed the Canadian War Memorials Fund (now the Lord Beaverbrook Collection at the Canadian War Museum) and how those pieces were the starting points for Canadian art on a global stage. Photographs have also been examined in a similar manner, with historians like Carla-Jean Stokes contextualizing William Ivor Castle’s photographs and their manipulation, which created the foundation to study the aesthetics of First World War photography. Sarah Leslie has attempted to connect the official war photographs to the Canadian War Memorials Fund in her dissertation, “The Photography of the Canadian War Records Office: Art’s Cash Cow or Art Itself” as she argues that the photographic exhibitions generated funds to allow the Canadian War Memorials Fund to commission artists and perpetuate a set visual narrative of the war. There has been little discussion about photography and painting and how these two artistic mediums influenced each other, or how these two different art forms created a harmonious visual narrative.

In order to understand the interplay between war painting and war photography, the Canadian War Records Office (CWRO) and the Canadian War Memorials Fund (CWMF) first require introduction. The CWRO was established in 1916 to capture the historical experience of the war.[ii] Under the direction of Max Aitken (appointed Lord Beaverbrook in 1917), the CWRO was tasked with collecting war diaries, officer reports, and other documents that eventually became the foundational sources of Canadian operations history, along with other cultural artefacts and documents from the war period. Some of these documents included Canadians in Khaki and The Canadian War Pictorial, the latter of which included war photographs.[iii] The inclusion of these photos into the textual record of the war helped assert the Canadian photographic war identity as the documents were accessible to soldiers and civilians and started the circulation and commodification of war photos. Read in this context, the official photographs were part of the cultural record of the war as they were able to quickly and effectively tell a narrative about the war.

The Canadian War Memorials Fund was established at the same time as the CWRO but was separate from the office. It served as a fundraising agent for artists and was the body that hired and produced monumental works of art. Among the first completed commissions of the CWMF project was Richard Jack’s The Second Battle of Ypres, 22nd April to 25 May, 1915, finished in 1917. Few notes exist surrounding the details of this commission except a vague mention in Lord Beaverbrook’s letters that he wished that it did not take so long for works, like Jack’s, to be completed. For many who haven’t had the pleasure of seeing Jack’s painting in person, it is enormous, measuring 371.5cm (146 in) tall and 589.0 cm (231 and 3/4th in) wide and the detailed brushwork was evidently time-consuming, since it took over two years to complete.[iv] Beaverbrook’s impatience with the lengthy process of painting can likely be traced back to his newspaper empire, and the impact of American photojournalists ability to quickly capture the war. From the outbreak of war to mid-1916, American photographers were able to capture the fighting from both sides and sell their photographs to newspapers for print. By March 1916, these photographers stopped capturing the war. After a routine order from the British to ban cameras on the front lines, Beaverbrook was forced not only to commission painters to fill in a four-month gap in the visual record, but to create his own through the Canadian official war photographers.

Over the next three years, Harry Knobel, Ivor Castle and William Rider Rider produced over four thousand glass plate negatives, which were reproduced as postcards, prints and enlarged for twelve different exhibitions. The official photographs demonstrate the wider experience of the war through the different aesthetic approaches of the photographers. Harry Knobel’s photographs reflected his service in 1915 and during the gas attacks at the Somme. His photos reflected a more personal sense of the war through his approach to ruined landscapes and the routine of war, like in the case of soldiers’ washing themselves (seen below). Knobel’s photographs also show someone adapting to technology. Knobel was not familiar with an advanced camera where he could manipulate the depth of field to enhance his subject and the photograph overall.

Harry Knobel, O.3 “The Morning Wash, 10th Battalion,” Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3396671.

William Ivor Castle was also well-known for his ability to take photographs. In fact, in one of his letters, Beaverbrook calls Castle “the greatest press photographer of our time.”[v] In late 1916 to mid-1917, Castle’s photographic style was what the CWRO needed. His ability to manipulate the image, both within the camera as he shot and in the development process to dodge, blur and stitch multiple negatives together allowed the CWRO to create a Canadian-centric narrative. The photograph “Canadians Returning from the Trenches During the Battle of the Somme” is actually two images stitched together. This is evident through an examination of the shadows within the photograph. The soldiers in the left-hand side have shadows that fall almost directly behind them, whereas the mounted soldiers on the right have shadows that fall beside them, indicating that the photograph is comprised of two different light sources and was composited together.[vi] Castle’s composite photography not only created a clear visual narrative of the Canadians in battle, but it was reminiscent of late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century photographic movements.

William Ivor Castle, O.997 “Mud bespattered Canadian Heroes Returning from trenches.” Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3194728.

William Rider Rider’s photographic style combined the best elements of the photographers before him. Rider Rider did stitch negatives together to create panoramic landscapes, but also tried to emphasize a particular feeling about a battle to form a story, rather than narrating one through a composite. Rider Rider was also able to reflect public opinion of the war through his photographs. O.3656 “42nd Battalion Resting in the Grand Place, Mons, on the Morning of November 11, 1918” is the perfect example of his ability to capture feeling within a shot, as well as capture public opinion. People are seen celebrating and congregating, emphasized by the blurriness of the figures, and there is also a sense of camaraderie among the soldiers. The image presents them as so tired and relieved they have decided to take a nap in the middle of the square.

William Rider Rider O.3656 “42nd Battalion resting in the Grand Place, Mons, on the morning of the 11th November, 1918.” Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3522378.

When the CWMF started its exhibitions, its’ associated photographic narrative was shaped by Castle and Rider Rider’s aesthetic sensibilities. Their shots informed the public narrative of the war and were used to assert the Canadian wartime narrative, and in some cases, helped shaped and enforce the myth of Vimy Ridge and the success of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. This is especially true when examining the Grafton Galleries exhibition of 1917, who’s dates overlapped with the 50th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. But beyond being co-opted for myth-making purposes, the inclusion of the photographs into the traditional art space as their own medium demonstrates a rising trend in photographic history. Photographs were no longer only seen as a scientific process of recording or as a substitute for preliminary sketches, but in certain instances could be elevated to the world of high art. This was able to happen both explicitly through their inclusion into the traditional art space and implicitly by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to solicit funds to hire war artists.

The Grafton Galleries exhibition as the focus point for this intersection of photography as an artistic medium is two-fold. The first is practical; all of the war photos exhibitions were first held at a gallery in central London, before being transported to Brighton, Glasgow and after the war, were sent to the United States. The second reason has to do with the notoriety of the first gallery. The Grafton Galleries was an emerging modern art gallery in the early 1900’s, best known for being the first gallery to showcase Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.[vii] Its exhibitions were heavily influenced, and in some cases, run by art critic Roger Fry. In fact, the term Post-Impressionist was coined by Fry in reference to his 1910 exhibition on Cezanne, Matisse and Van Gogh.[viii]

“Views taken inside the Grafton Galleries, London, at the Second Exhibition of Canadian Battle Pictures,” Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 3394845.

The Grafton Galleries were designed for large-scale exhibitions, which can be seen in the above photograph of the Second Exhibition of the Canadian War Photographs in 1919.[ix] The spatial design allowed for the gallery owners and exhibiting artists to display their works for critique and commercial sale. As discussed previously, the first photographic exhibition at Grafton Galleries in mid-1917 was exclusively focused on war photography and the accomplishments of the Canadian at Vimy Ridge. The opening statement of the accompanying catalogue went so far as to emphasize this, as to “avoid tedious reiteration this fact is disposed of now, rather than weary the visitor with constant reminders in the Catalogue as he makes his way through…the most complete set of photographs taken of any battle.”[x] The gallery provided a location for Canadians to become well-known and provide a representation of the visual record of the First World War.

The Grafton Galleries did not charge a fee to enter this first exhibition. Instead, it’s revenue came from people purchasing the souvenir catalogue for six pence.[xi] The cost of the catalogue was an expense for the average soldier, but for the middle and upper classes, and for commissioned officers, the catalogue was affordable. In later exhibitions the cost of the program ranged from three to twenty-five pence. The catalogue was especially helpful for those considering buying an enlargement, as the first page outlines the cost of framing the photograph, as well as its cost in different sizes. The sizes ranged from unframed and unmounted at five pounds to framed with backboard and glass from 258 pounds.

The money raised by the enlargements went back to the CWMF to hire artists like John Singer Sergeant, A.Y. Jackson and Fredrick Varley. Providing artists compensation for their paintings helped to establish an aesthetic appreciation for Canadian art of the period and helped legitimize war art as a genre. Through the sale of the photographs, the art gallery was ascribing value to the work. Previous to this point, photographs were something to record moments, and ultimately act as an aide-memoir. By saying that a photograph was valued at £25 to £248, the photographs were brought into the realm of high art. It was a status symbol that meant something beyond shades of silver nitrate on paper. The act of purchasing and later displaying a framed photograph in a home gave the purchaser a sense that they were able to talk about the war beyond their lived experience.

Another factor that helped elevate the war photographs into the realm of high art was the timing of the exhibition ad artistic trends in the twentieth century. Before the war, the pictorialist movement was slowly winding down and the Grafton Galleries exhibition was likely one of the last hurrahs of that movement. The pictorialist movement is best understood in the photographs it produced and the ways in which photographers employed darkroom techniques to produce an image. It was an attempt to manipulate multiple exposures to produce a singular narrative that emphasized the composition of the work over the truth.[xii] Castle’s photography, at least the majority of those selected for the Grafton Galleries exhibition, followed this pictorialist movement and helped enforce the association of photography as art.

The second exhibition of 1919 at Grafton Galleries was more well-known that the 1917 exhibition, since the second exhibition included war paintings that had been completed by mid-1919. These paintings included Richard Jack’s The Battle of Second Ypres and John Singer Sergeant’s Gassed, the latter of which was a larger mirrored work of British photographer Ernest Brooks’ late-war photograph. Sergeant paints the soldiers facing towards the right edge of the frame, whereas Brooks depicts the soldiers facing to left of the frame. The second exhibition at Grafton Galleries also strongly featured the war photographs on the gallery walls. Other rooms held war photos that had been enlarged o grand scale and were comparable in size to some of the paintings on display. This display of war photographs alongside the war paintings cemented their place alongside art. In a letter home to his mother, Private William Antliff compares the photographs to paintings, noting that the paintings were wonderful, but the photographs were more spectacular because of how they represented the war as he experienced it.[xiii] In Antliff’s eyes, the paintings merely “captured the war in colour and how the officer’s assumed we were fighting off the bosch.”[xiv]

In summary, the official war photographs can be understood as an artistic medium because of the status they were ascribed during their presentation in gallery exhibits during and shortly following the war. Their inclusion into the traditional galley space allowed the photographs to gain elevated status in the art world. Their commodity value not only enforce the social status of those who purchased photographic enlargements, but ascribed value and allowed the works to be seen as legitimate art pieces. And finally, when shown alongside paintings, and understood through the soldier’s experience, the photographs reflected a superior representation of the reality of the war in ways that war paintings could not.

Discussion Response

I would like to open my discussion response by thanking the Laurier Centre for Military, Strategic and Disarmament Studies for opening up their website and allowing the presenters of the 31st Annual Canadian Military History Colloquium a digital space to present their research. It has been a wonderful opportunity for me (and for researchers following my paper) to share papers we have worked on. I am excited to read the papers that follow, and hopefully present thought-provoking questions like Dr. Graham Broad and Brittany Dunn have posed to me.

Dr. Broad posed the question of how the war photographers viewed their work and if they considered it to be art. Though I cannot be absolutely sure about this (I haven’t seen absolute evidence of this in my research), I would assume that Castle and Rider-Rider saw themselves as producing a visual record of the war, but not art. Art was a by-product of Lord Beaverbrook’s desire to raise funds to hire artists than anything else. They also likely didn’t see themselves as producing art since they listed their pre-war occupations as “photojournalist.” For them, taking photographs of the war was a position they were uniquely qualified for. But I do think that at some point, Rider-Rider used his work and its dominance in art galleries to bring in clients, since he became the royal portrait photographer for a brief period of time in the late 1920’s. Harry Knobel, on the other hand, never referenced his time as war photographer. His pre- and post-war jobs were listed as mining engineer, and even his obituary from the Port Arthur News Chronicle skips over this fact. I suspect the omission of his time as war photographer has more to due with traumas he endured as part of the 1st Battalion, his neurasthenia, and post-war decorum than anything else.

In regard to Brittany’s questions about the consumption of the photographs, there are indications in newspaper reviews and letters from nursing sisters that some viewers understood that a handful of the photographs were falsified. Rider-Rider was also very vocal about the challenges he faced when he took over from Castle, as Castle liked to have soldiers pose or act a certain way and Rider-Rider felt that this made the photograph look unnatural and he wanted to capture the realism of the war. It was also relatively common to find composite photographs in the late-Victorian and Edwardian periods. But the determinant of accurate and authentic was left to the viewer. As far as I know, it wasn’t a secret that some of the photographs in the exhibition were composites. This sense of accurate and authentic also pervaded the enlargements purchased. I haven’t found any copies that came from the war photo exhibitions (at least not that I know of!), but other CWRO-sanctioned publications advertised enlargements of the official war photographs. The places those photos are seen and consumed are in private photograph albums, typically belonging to Officers and Nursing Sisters. I have seen less than five albums belonging to Privates and Corporals that contain official photographs but these are produced in the late 1920’s and 1930’s (especially around the Vimy Pilgrimage of 1936). They were more likely to have portraits done, than buy an official war photograph since a portrait was cheaper. But both official photograph enlargements and portrait photographs served as mementos.

The exhibition catalogues I have seen in museums and archives were often donated as part of a larger collection of First World War items belonging to someone in the officer class. I have made the assumption based on that and the cost of the catalogue that it was typically the upper-middle and upper-class buying the catalogues. This is also the working assumption I have made when it came to the framed enlargements because of their cost and who would have the disposable income to afford it, thus making the enlargement a symbol of social status. For non-commissioned officers, other soldiers and civilians, they were more likely to see the official photographs in trench newspapers, magazines, books, and postcards. These were cheaper and circulated more widely than enlargements.


[i] This particular exhibition was the travelling portion of a larger exhibition at the Canadian War Museum of the same name. See also Amber Lloydlangston and Laura Brandon, Witness: Canadian Art of the First World War (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum).

[ii] Library and Archives Canada, Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook) correspondence, CWRO records, R611-0-1.

[iii] Wartime Canada (wartime.ca) has digitized many of these records, including The Canadian War Pictorial and have been one of the instrumental digital archives in completing not only this work, but other portions of my MA thesis during a worldwide pandemic.

[iv] Canadian War Museum, Collection Holdings- Art, (Canadian War Museum, n.d.).

[v] LAC, Beaverbrook letters, CWRO records, R611-0-1, Addendum to William Ivor Castle Service File.

[vi] Carla-Jean Stokes, “Beyond the Taking of Vimy Ridge: The War Photographs of William Ivor Castle” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies, 18, no. 2 (2017): 180-181.

[vii] Roger Fry critique, Grafton Galleries, University of Glasgow “Exhibition Culture in London,” accessed October 20, 2019.

[viii] Arnason and Mansfield, History of Modern Art, 7th ed. (Pearson: Boston, 2013).

[ix] LAC, Canadian War Record Photographic Material, R611-0-0E, special collections.

[x] Western University, Ley and Lois Smith Collection in Memory and Popular Culture, Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Exhibition for the Benefit of the Canadian War Memorials Fund.

[xi] Many thanks are owed to Dr. Will Pratt who very kindly sent me his chart breakdown of wages in the First World War based on Census Canada records, who’s insight helped me understand the exchange rate during the First World War.

[xii] For more information about the pictorialist movement, artstory.org has a fantastic article detailing the nuances of the movement and the central photographers.

[xiii] Canadian War Museum, Antliff fonds, William Antliff to his mother, July 1918.

[xiv] Canadian War Museum, Antliff fonds, William Antliff to his mother, July 1918.