Mak­ing a new world

a new ex­hi­bi­tion at Lon­don’s im­pe­rial War mu­seum ex­am­ines the pe­riod af­ter the First World War. Amy Davies speaks to cu­ra­tor alan Wake­field to find out more

Amateur Photographer - - 7 Days -

A new IWM pho­to­graphic ex­hi­bi­tion looks at the pe­riod im­me­di­ately af­ter the First World War

In the years fol­low­ing the First World War, coun­tries, cities, towns, so­ci­eties and in­di­vid­u­als were tasked with re­build­ing them­selves on an un­prece­dented scale. From the dev­as­ta­tion and loss of the pre­ced­ing four years, a new world was be­gin­ning to emerge.

Tra­di­tion­ally, the years that im­me­di­ately fol­lowed the end of the Great War have been a lit­tle over­looked by his­to­ri­ans – and the gen­eral pub­lic. The ex­hi­bi­tion ‘Re­newal: Life af­ter the First World War in Pho­to­graphs’ at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum (IWM) in Lam­beth, Lon­don, seeks to re­dress the bal­ance, with more than 130 black & white pho­to­graphs, doc­u­ments and ob­jects from the mu­seum’s ex­ten­sive col­lec­tion.

A mix of am­a­teur and pro­fes­sional pho­tog­ra­phy, many im­ages in the ex­hi­bi­tion are pre­vi­ously un­seen. Bri­tish of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers were still work­ing shortly af­ter the war for the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion, the work from which built the foun­da­tion for the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum’s col­lec­tion when it was founded in 1917.

One of the ben­e­fits of putting to­gether a show about the post-war pe­riod is that cen­sor­ship was more re­laxed com­pared to of­fi­cial wartime con­trol, so it be­came eas­ier for pri­vate pho­tog­ra­phers.

Pro­fes­sion­als at this time were likely to have been us­ing hand­held press cam­eras, which took 5x4-inch glass-plate neg­a­tives, while the Vest Pocket Ko­dak was still very pro­lific for am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­phers.

On the eve of the ex­hi­bi­tion open­ing, AP sat down with Alan Wake­field, Head of First World War and Early 20th Cen­tury Con­flict at the IWM to dis­cuss the dis­play.

Cu­rat­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion which in­cludes ‘fresh’ im­agery from al­most 100 years ago nat­u­rally means un­cov­er­ing pre­vi­ously hid­den work – a task which is far from straight­for­ward. Wake­field says, ‘Even some of the of­fi­cial press pho­to­graphs we haven’t seen be­cause the pho­tog­ra­pher would have taken 10-20 pho­to­graphs in one job. Per­haps two or three of those would have gone into a

news­pa­per, but the Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion and the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum photo archive would have kept some of them. So re­ally, they have been in the archive since 1919 – with the of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers we’ve even got the orig­i­nal glass­plate neg­a­tive and prints.

‘ The pri­vate ma­te­rial has been do­nated to the mu­seum since 1919 or 1920, and we’re still col­lect­ing it now. That’s al­ways been avail­able but ob­vi­ously be­fore com­puter data­bases, how you could ac­tu­ally find what was in the archive was more dif­fi­cult. Now, there’s a record for ev­ery­thing on­line. Not all of the im­ages are digi­tised, but there should be a record for the col­lec­tion, which is quite de­scrip­tive.

‘ The trou­ble is, be­cause we’re deal­ing with a lot of legacy records, there’s a long pe­riod in the mu­seum’s his­tory where the cat­a­logu­ing wasn’t very good. So a lot of the im­ages are un­seen be­cause all the record said was “Bri­tish Army First World War”, which isn’t much use if you’re look­ing for specifics. We’ve got a rolling pro­gramme of up­dat­ing the cat­a­logue, and while we’re do­ing that, we turn up the ma­te­rial [for ex­hi­bi­tions like this].’

While, tech­ni­cally, pho­tog­ra­phy may not have moved on much from the 1914-1918 pe­riod, the pho­to­graphs in this ex­hi­bi­tion are a lit­tle dif­fer­ent stylis­ti­cally. ‘Ob­vi­ously the pho­tog­ra­phers had a lot more time to ac­tu­ally cap­ture the im­ages. With of­fi­cial pho­tog­ra­phers, they’re rel­a­tively sim­i­lar to what they were try­ing to do in wartime – they’ve got the same brief – but they’ve got a bit more lee­way now that the war is over, per­haps to do a bit more record pho­tog­ra­phy, or to cap­ture a se­quence,’ Wake­field ex­plains.

With the cen­te­nary of the armistice this year, it comes as no sur­prise that the IWM would want to com­mem­o­rate the event in some way. Nat­u­rally, many peo­ple might have ex­pected the mu­seum to fo­cus on the kind of typ­i­cal war-and­con­flict pho­tog­ra­phy we are used to see­ing. Wake­field says how­ever that the mu­seum was keen to do some­thing a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent.

‘ The idea was to look at the hopes and as­pi­ra­tions that peo­ple had af­ter four years of global war. To look at what those were be­yond the armistice and how far they were ac­tu­ally achieved.’

Nar­row­ing down the se­lec­tion from the archive’s enor­mous repos­i­tory is an­other chal­lenge for the mu­seum team. ‘ The first thing we do is get a lead cu­ra­tor. I was Head of Pho­to­graphs be­fore I was Head of First World War, so from a pho­to­graphic point of view I had a good idea of what we al­ready had. But we would then have to go and ask other spe­cial­ists and find out what they’ve got.

‘ The next big pe­riod is what we call the long list – which is lit­er­ally find­ing any­thing that might po­ten­tially go in [the ex­hi­bi­tion]. Then the ex­hi­bi­tion group sits down and comes up with a short­list – look­ing at the themes. You’re al­ways go­ing to have more ma­te­rial than you can phys­i­cally fit in. Then you sit down and you do some horse trad­ing – be­cause dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent favourite items.’

It’s easy to see why this pe­riod in his­tory has been un­der­ap­pre­ci­ated. Wake­field says, ‘Peo­ple dis­cuss the peace treaty, and then they say that didn’t work, and go “There were Nazis and the Sec­ond World War”. I think peo­ple – and we’ve done it in the past here too – con­cen­trate on the con­flict be­cause it’s “the big story”. Even at the time, peo­ple just wanted to get back to civil­ian lives. Once that hap­pens it’s less of a na­tional story and it be­comes a lot more dis­parate, more per­sonal.’

These days, it seems his­to­ri­ans are more in­ter­ested in the hu­man as­pect of his­toric events. ‘It’s eas­ier to ap­peal to a wide au­di­ence if you can drill quite com­plex sub­jects down to an in­di­vid­ual’s in­volve­ment, be­cause you can re­late to it. Maybe it’s some­body from your town, or some­body in a sim­i­lar cir­cum­stance, and you go “Hey, that could have been me 90 years ago”.’

Draw­ing on those themes, Wake­field says some of the most mean­ing­ful pho­tog­ra­phy in this ex­hi­bi­tion is rem­i­nis­cent of is­sues in recent con­flicts. A good ex­am­ple is a se­quence of im­ages in the dis­play de­pict­ing a soldier hav­ing a pros­thetic limb fit­ted, some­thing we might as­so­ciate to­day with sol­diers in Iraq or Afghanistan.

There are also im­ages from post-war con­flicts. ‘I think peo­ple have this idea that af­ter Novem­ber 1918, the war is over and that’s it. But many coun­tries had lots of smaller wars, civil wars and wars of in­de­pen­dence, plus the Rus­sian Rev­o­lu­tion was still go­ing on,’ Wake­field ex­plains.

‘Even closer to home in Ire­land – every­body knows about the Trou­bles in Ire­land from 1969 on­wards, but if you think about im­me­di­ately af­ter the First World War, there’s a pho­to­graph of a Bri­tish tank knock­ing down a build­ing in Cork. It’s amaz­ing be­cause you think “Oh, that must be France or Bel­gium,” so there are things like that which will sur­prise peo­ple... I think it’s quite im­pact­ful that it’s ac­tu­ally a tank that we all as­so­ciate with use on the Western Front, be­ing used in what was then Bri­tain, or the UK, against lo­cal in­sur­gents.’

Just as it was al­most 100 years ago, the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum con­tin­ues to be a repos­i­tory for con­flict and re­lated im­agery from the Min­istry of De­fence, which it safe­guards on be­half of the Bri­tish na­tion. It has also re­cently com­mis­sioned serv­ing sol­diers to take pho­to­graphs and keep diaries, so that in an­other 100 years’ time, there may well be ex­hi­bi­tions for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions which – sadly for the hu­man con­di­tion – show very sim­i­lar themes.

Above: Armistice cel­e­bra­tions in Birm­ing­ham, 1918

Left: Pho­to­graphs such as this, which shows pa­tients at Roe­hamp­ton be­ing taught how to use their ar­ti­fi­cial limbs, draws com­par­isons to recent con­flicts where sim­i­lar im­agery of­ten ex­ists

Above: A refugee fam­ily re­turn­ing to Amiens in north­ern France, look­ing at the ru­ins of a house

‘Re­newal: Life Af­ter the First World War in Pho­to­graphs’ is free to en­ter and runs at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in Lon­don un­til 31 March 2019 as part of its Mak­ing a New World sea­son. For more de­tails, visit The first-re­leased Bri­tish pris­on­ers to reach Tour­nai, 14 Novem­ber 1918

The lib­er­a­tion of Mu­nich, 1 May 1919. Armed civil­ians lead the Red Guard away

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