Composite Propaganda Photographs during the First World War 2003

pdf: composite propaganda 2003

‘Composite Propaganda Photographs during the First World War’,
History of Photography, Vol 27, No 2, Summer, 2003, pp 154-165
During the final two years of the First World War, a series of propaganda photography exhibitions were held in London. The centrepieces to these exhibitions were giant mural enlargements. Some of these spectacular battle scenes were artificially coloured and some were composites produced from several different negatives. The exhibitions were popular successes, and the mural images attracted favourable press attention. They also produced a degree of controversy behind the scenes with respect to their status as ‘fakes’.
Pictorial War Propaganda in Britain
In the first years of the war, all forms of propaganda began to be used more frequently and more strategically by all belligerent nations. By 1916 war propagandists were taking seriously the potential of pictorial propaganda. Britain appointed official photographers and set up a pictorial department to distribute British photographs and films overseas. From early 1917, when the war had bogged down in the trenches and there was danger of public disaffection, propaganda became as concerned with managing domestic opinion and mood as with promoting foreign policy interests abroad. By the closing stages of the war it had become apparent ‘that almost for the first time in history success in war had become directly dependent on general public opinion’. Pictorial propagandists quickly recognised the importance of the new media, such as the cinema or illustrated newspapers, for disseminating their images. Images became central to public understanding of the war, and photography and film supplanted the written word as the most powerful weapon in propaganda.
The driving force behind pictorial propaganda in Britain was Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian financier who, as Max Aitkin, had come to Britain in 1910 and quickly rose in politics through his wealth, newspaper interests as owner of the Daily Express, personal friendships and high-level political allegiances. At the outbreak of the War, Aitkin persuaded the Canadian Prime Minister to make him ‘Official Canadian Eyewitness’. In January 1916 he was allowed to set up and run the Canadian War Records Office. By the end of the year he had also become the Chairman of the British War Office Cinematographic Committee. Early the following year the new British Prime Minister Lloyd George granted him the peerage of Lord Beaverbrook as a reward for his support in the overthrow of the Asquith government. A year later, in 1918, Lloyd George made Beaverbrook Britain’s first Minister of Information. Beaverbrook energetically set about shaping what had previously been piecemeal efforts into a single operation.
From the start British propagandists distanced them¬selves from the sensational fabrications and gross jingoism of Boar War propaganda. In the phrase of the first head of the British Foreign Office’s Bureau of Propaganda, Charles Masterman, they were to use ‘the propaganda of facts’.2 While acknowledging this tenet, Beaverbrook demonstrated a more sophisticated understanding of media-based propaganda within the complex and fragmented social environment of wartime Britain. When he became Britain’s Minister of Information in 1918, he declared what his approach had been throughout the war. Public opinion must not be allowed to form itself, it must be formed for it — by the truth certainly — but the truth ‘in an acceptable form’:
It is useless to imagine that the mere existence of a fact will penetrate everywhere by its own weight, or that facts themselves do not requrre treatment according to which audience they are to be presented. Public opinion is indeed so volatile a thing that nothing except a mixture of tact and persistence will induce it to accept and realise what to the preacher is self evident.3
Earlier, as head of the Canadian War Records Office, Beaverbrook had realized that photography would be central to the documentation of this war because it was thoroughly in tune with the dual responsibility of a government records office to disseminate information and collect documents. The photograph was able to operate along both the axes of publicity and record keeping, propaganda and history. Photographs took part in the urgency of the moment, while simultaneously implying the importance of that moment for posterity. ‘Many of these have not yet passed the censor’, wrote Beaverbrook, ‘but five or ten or twenty-five years from now, they will be shown to us and our sons and will link the decades together in a way unimagined by our ancestors’.4
Beaverbrook also had the most acute understanding of anyone in Britain of the importance of photography and film for the new psychological depth of the task propaganda had to perform. He felt the visceral primacy of the image over the written word, and he understood the importance for war propaganda of the technical affinity that the most modern forms of visual experience had with the most modern forms of warfare.
Under modern conditions nations are fighting and are sacri¬ficing bone and sinew to an extent never known before — and realisation alone can justify the sacrifice. We must see our men climbing out of the trenches before we can realise the patience, the exhaustion, and the courage which are the assets and trials of the modern fighting man.”1
As the war dragged on, photography became even more important to Beaverbrook because the directness of the image was able to combat the fatigue the public was feeling with respect to the war itself and with the increasingly hollow-sounding rhetoric of traditional propaganda. Photographic facts addressed themselves particularly to the working classes and were able to form a direct point of contact between the totally estranged experiences of those in Britain and those on the front.
It is hard enough for the civilian, on whose endurance to the end the issue of the world war depends so largely, to realise conditions at the front: without photography it would be practically impossible. But what the mind can’t take in by the reading of descriptions, the eye can assimilate from the actual outline of the scene and the men depicted on the plate. Besides, the great bulk of mankind soon wearies of the word. At the bottom of his heart man feels of the war story that of the makers of such books there is no end, and that much study of them is weariness to the flesh. Photography has about it the convincing atmosphere of naked reality. He has only got to open his eyes to see it. So is modern science applied to the acts of war as well as of peace.’
Beaverbrook’s other innovation as head of the Canadian War Records Office was to use the established film and photography trades for the production and dissemination of propaganda. The official British and Canadians photographers
came largely from London’s most pictorially oriented illustrated newspaper, the Daily Mirror, which had since 1904 exclusively used photographs as illustrations. The Canadian official photographs were licensed for distribu¬tion through picture agencies on a commercial basis. ‘No propaganda reaches the hearts and minds of the people’, wrote Beaverbrook, ‘unless it is so convincing and that the public is ready and anxious to pay a price to see or read it’.7
In addition, in the emerging mass media environment of the time, there were many rivals for the attention of the public, and appetites easily became jaded. In this context, a fundamental principle of propaganda must be that ‘obvious propaganda is not only of little value but may even do more harm than good.’ Although Beaverbrook wanted his images to carry the authoritative premium of the ‘official’ imprimatur, he also wanted them to become an intimate part of the public’s media consumption, a consumption that was driven by the compulsions of choice and desire. Moreover, because this public appetite was changing and continually seeking formal novelty, only trade photographers trained under commercial imperatives, not bureaucrats, could provide effective propaganda.
Official war photographs were disseminated into a very fluid, polyvalent media environment. In the illustrated papers of the time photographs were not diegetically integrated into the news articles. They were generally given their own section in the paper — in the case of the Daily Mirror, as a front page, back page and centre double-page spread — with supporting captions. The caption might denote either a non-specific ‘scene at the front’, or a specifically reported on raid. Valencies of authenticity and scenographic legibility were exchanged between different kinds of image and text across the page. Photo¬graphic realism became the core model for all illustration, and the fresh, proximate, eyewitness report became the model for all text. Illustrated magazines such as the Illustrated London News, for instance, which still largely relied on drawing and paintings to convey scenographic information, often published an uninformative photo¬graph of a particular engagement, followed by a stirringly composed drawing of the same engagement, with the caption ‘drawn from eyewitness accounts’.
Although the intrepid official photographer became a key figure in this newspaper landscape, the idea of the ‘photojournalist’ — the autonomous photographer inde¬pendently reporting on events as they unfolded — made no sense at the time. Official photographers were given honorary ranks and saw themselves as propagandists, not reporters, their photographs were part of the war effort, not a comment on it.
The Problem of the ‘Fake’
In this context, propagandists and photographers found themselves having continually to finesse the balance between
the qualities of authenticity, actuality and immediacy in their images and their legibility as historical scenes. This was new iconographic terrain, where everything was at stake. The value of authenticity had never been more politically crucial, but at the same time the need to provide scenographic spectacle to feed the public appetite for images, and the need to re-cohere fragmentary and disjointed images into readily legible pictures, created a huge temptation to fake.
Faking took place in several forms. Photographs taken during training were passed off as real battle reportage or scenes were deliberately staged for the camera. Photographs themselves were manipulated with bomb blasts or aeroplanes being montaged into the pictures, and elaborate composites were sometimes constructed from several negatives. Virtually every photographer or filmmaker faked to some extent, and everybody seemed to know about it.
Not only did the accusation of fake directly threaten the propagandistic value of the photograph or film, it could also upset the internal politics of the army and undermine the photographer’s honorary position within its structure. Fakes could bring photographers and cinematographers into disrepute with soldiers at the front. For instance, a shot with a dog supposedly minding its master’s kit and rifle in the snow was returned to the official photographers from General Staff with the terse note: ‘I am instructing the photograph censors not to pass this type of photo in the future. To every soldier serving with a combatant unit, this must be patently and obviously a “fake”‘.10
Although such instances of faking remained relatively rare, and were usually officially disavowed and surrepti¬tious, they were nonetheless an integral part of pictorial propaganda. In his position as the Chair of the War Office Cinematographic Committee, Beaverbrook sacked a Lieutenant Bovill, a film cameraman, because his wholesale faking made his footage useless. At the same time, Beaverbrook continued to sponsor the successful British film cameraman Lieutenant Malins and Canada’s official photographer Ivor Castle, both of whom were widely suspected to have faked from time to time.
Propaganda   Exhibitions
The most explicit ‘fakes’ made during the First World War were the central set pieces to a series of massive photographic exhibitions that Beaverbrook initiated. In 1916 and 1917 Beaverbrook organised two exhibitions of ‘Canadian Official War Photographs’ at the Grafton Galleries in London. The success of these exhibitions led to two British exhibitions: an exhibition of ‘Imperial [British, Canadian and Australian] War Photographs’ at the Royal Academy in January 1918; and ‘British Official War Photographs in Colour’ at the Grafton Galleries in March 1918. By this time Beaverbrook had become Minister of Information. The Australian War Records Section concluded the sequence with an exhibition ‘Australian Official War Photographs and Pictures’ at the Grafton Galleries in May 1918.
The first Canadian exhibitions not only went on to tour — first in England and then to France and to North America — but they were also the locus for considerable press attention, visits by royalty and huge public attendance. They were partnered as media events by the reproduction in newspapers and magazines of images made from them. They were also points from which images were sold to the public in a variety of formats and prices, ranging from nine pence to several hundred pounds.
These exhibitions were organised by Ivor Castle, an experienced English press and war photographer, whom Beaverbrook had recruited to the Canadian War Records Office in mid 1916 from the photography department of the Daily MirrorV Castle photographed Canada’s role in the disastrous Somme offensive of late 1916, and then returned to London to mount in December 1916 the first exhibition of over 200 Canadian War Photographs. The photographic printing company Raines & Co of Ealing enlarged these negatives to sizes ranging from one square metre to two by three metres and mounted them in heavy oak frames. The proceeds from the picture sales went to the Canadian War Memorials Fund to pay painters to paint grand battle pictures for a post war memorial.
Captions to photographs in this exhibition emphasizd both the technical sophistication of the photographs, and the bravery of the photographer:
Heavy Barrage Fire
This is the only panoramic photograph of a shell barrage in the world … It is obvious from the picture the risk which the photographer ran in taking it.
The Shelling of Courcelette
The photographer approached as near to the scene as he could without being killed, and declares it to be a veritable ‘hell on earth’.12
In this exhibition, however, staged photographs were also shown without compunction. The exhibition’s central sequence of photographs, which supposedly showed lines of troops heroically clambering ‘over the top’ into an onslaught of enemy machine gun fire, was in fact taken behind the lines at the St Pol training school. The canvas breech covers on the training rifles held by the soldiers had been cropped out, and shell bursts, which were probably shot separately at the nearby trench-mortar school, had been montaged into the sky.1
Shortly after the photographs had been staged and three months before their display in the exhibition, this sequence had been received enthusiastically by the press, which had published them as up-to-the minute news photographs. They were published by the Illustrated London News with the caption: ‘”Over the Top”: The meaning of a phrase now familiar.’14 They were also reproduced on the front page of the Daily Mirror, with the caption ‘These Striking Photographs Show In Vivid Fashion An Attack By The Canadian Troops’.13 A month later the Daily Mirror published them again, along with a dashing portrait of Ivor Castle posing in a trench (figure 2), in order to advertise their sale as postcards, with profits to go to the Canadian War Memorials Fund.16
When the enlargements were exhibited at the Grafton Galleries two months later, they relied on a more elaborately fabricated catalogue text to verify them:
The Last Over The Top
Here is to be seen a remarkable picture of a German shrapnel shell bursting over a Canadian trench just as the Canadians are going over the parapet. A fragment from this shell killed the man whose body is seen sprawled across the parapet.17
This incident of staging remained officially unac¬knowledged, and Castle, coming from a commercial background and having a flare for publicity, went on to exaggerate his personal derring-do in the magazine Canada in Khaki: ‘Taking photographs of the men going over the parapet is quite exciting. Nothing, of course, can be arranged. You sit or crouch in the first-line trench while the enemy does a little strafing, and if you are lucky you get your pictures’. This studied insouciance gave Castle’s colleague on the Daily Mirror, William Rider-Rider, who was the second official Canadian photographer recruited to the Canadian War Records Office in June 1917, a lot to live down when he visited some units. There, he later recounted, he was met by remarks such as, ‘Want to take us going over the top? Another faker?’19
As the exhibition toured to Canada and the United States over the next two years, the ‘over the top’ pictures continued to be met with press acclaim for their realism, vividness and sense of immediacy. In all of these press accounts the figure of the intrepid photographer, who like the soldiers themselves risked death to capture his shots, figured strongly.
Cinema  Propaganda
Castle staged his ‘over the top’ pictures at about the same time as the seminal propaganda film Battle of the Somme was breaking all box office records in Britain. The centrepiece to the film was a similarly stirring ‘over the top sequence’, which had been filmed a month or so before. The first two shots in the sequence were staged, probably also at a training school behind the lines, by the British War Office’s Official cinematographer, Lieutenant Geoffrey Malins.”
The Second Canadian Exhibition
After the success of his first Canadian exhibition, Castle remained in London until April 1917, when he returned to France and photographed the Canadian victory at Vimy Ridge. These photographs formed the basis of the second exhibition, also sponsored by the Canadian War Records Office, which opened in July 1917 (figure 3). Like its predecessor this exhibition featured 188 enlargements in oak frames, some of which were further enhanced by artificial colouring. The pictures were reported as depicting the Canadian operations with a ‘terrible realism’ and supplying a ‘most intimate insight’ into the difficulties of the front.”1 As in the first exhibition, the intrepidity of the official photographer was highlighted in the catalogue.
Barbed Wire and the Shells
The Canadian official photographer was out along the front line when the Germans suddenly began a bombardment. The pho¬tographer had to take cover for three hours, but he emerged periodically to take pictures of the Germans’ morning ‘hate’.
The Death Cloud
It is one of the hardest things in the world to get a really good ‘snap’ of bursting shrapnel. Pretty as this little cloud of smoke looks, it is very deadly, and the man who handles the camera at such a moment does so at the risk of his life.
Many of the pictures were giant enlargements. The catalogue drew the visitor’s particular attention to picture
number 158 (figures 4, 5), ‘which is the largest photo¬
graph in the world taken on “no man’s land” by the
Canadian Official photographer as the Canadians went over to the attack on Thelus Village’. The picture would have been hard to miss since it occupied an entire wall of the central gallery and measured six by three metres. Raines & Co had printed it in five separate panels. The image was a composite of several different negatives, with printed-in shell bursts in the sky and printed-in bodies in the foreground. The catalogue’s extended caption served as a film-like commentary, taking the visitor step by step through the correct way to experience the picture:
The Taking of Vimy Ridge
No individual soldier taking part in a modern battle can have the faintest idea of the scope of the battle, or the conditions of that battle. Distance and perspective are necessary to secure the correct impression of the actual facts. For this reason it is idle to stand close to this picture. It must be looked at and studied from a sufficient distance to enable one to understand the immensity and importance of the scene before one. It is true that the Canadian Official photographer, who took this picture, was in the midst of the men who were advancing to the attack, but knowledge of his craft alone enabled him to take a picture, the real wonder and sense of which can only be studied with quiet reflection and at a distance. Nonetheless the  terrible  nearness of things  in which the photographer stood, which enables one to, as it were, ‘watch the battle from the neighbouring hill’, at the same time sweeps one into the conflict. One becomes absorbed into the picture. It is as though one were on the battlefield itself. The picture of the battle is taken in profile. It is taken from the flank looking along the line of attack. To the left of the picture, beyond the frame, one must imagine the smoke of our guiding and sheltering barrage fire. Guiding, yes, but sheltering only to a degree. Through that barrage the German shells are hurtling. The white smoke in the distance, which lies along the ground like a dewy mist above meadows at dawn, is smoke from the counter barrage of the German’s piercing our own. Every fleck of smoke, indeed, in the grim sky is smoke from bursting enemy shells. The great splodges of black smoke show where German shrapnel is showering thickly. Far along the ridge, in the middle distance, through the lane of men, may be seen the tanks heavily engaged. In the immediate foreground lie those who have already made the supreme sacrifice. Between, strolling to their ‘rendezvous with death’, are the men who made Vimy deathless. At the moment they are on what had been ‘no man’s land’ but a short time before; there still protrude from the broken ground the supports which held the German wire entanglements swept away from our guns. It is an awful pageant of war as it is waged today. It is an impression, nay, indeed a reality, of the splendid horror snatched by the photographer, in the fraction of a second, from the clutchings of death.23
This extended description not only navigates the audience through the abstracted, fragmented and disorienting experience of modern warfare, but also instructs it how to experience the picture in the gallery space. The viewer is asked to immerse himself within the battle, while also retaining a distance from it. This phenomenological act of doubling attempts to project an experiential bridge between those in London and those in the trenches. It links the two new, modern experiences — warfare and giant photograph exhibitions — through the mechanisms of nationalist empathy and the virtual space created by advanced photographic technology.
Like the first exhibition, this one was a spectacular success. At one point people queued for nearly two hundred metres to get in, and the exhibition raised £1100 for the Canadian War Memorials Fund. It was also the occasion for much associated press coverage. The Daily Mirror, whose photography department Castle had formerly headed and to which he would return after the War, was especially enthusiastic:
To gaze, for instance at the huge picture showing the Canadians going to the attack at Vimy Ridge is to be carried away in imagination to the grim realities of war. To obtain a full impression of the splendid awesomeness of this amazing masterpiece of photographic art the visitor should stand some distance away. The result will be thrills as if one were on the battlefield itself24
The exhibition later toured Britain, and a copy went to Paris and Canada. The success of the Canadian War Records Office did not go unnoticed. John Buchan, head of Britain’s Department of Information, wrote in August 1917 to Sir Reginald Brade of the British War Office. He  wanted  to   revamp   and  increase  the  support  and supervision afforded to British photographers because the flood of good quality Canadian photographs was lending support to criticism in the US press that ‘Canada [was] running the war.’  Buchan was opposed, however,  to emulating Beaverbrook by  putting British propaganda photography on an entirely commercial footing. He did not want to tie distribution to the monopoly of one commercial agency and, balking at Beaverbrook’s commer¬cial understanding of the new dynamics of public image consumption, thought it unwise to restrict attendance at propaganda exhibitions by charging admission.”3
Castle’s use of composites had the full support of Beaverbrook. He was planning an exhibition of Imperial War Photographs for January 1918 and was determined to retain the right of the Canadian Office to make composites for display. ‘Fake them … that’s what you could call it’, he declared in a meeting.” He brazened down British General Staff by directly requesting a ruling from the Chief Censor as to how they should be treated. He received the crisp reply: ‘All photographs whether “composite” or single exhibited as representing an actual scene on the Western front should be censored. If the Canadian Photographic Section care to exhibit “composite” photos clearly marked as such, then it will suffice if each separate photo has been censored’.27
The biggest composite was produced not for the Canadians, however, but on behalf of the British, for the exhibition ‘British Official War Photographs in Colour’ held in March 1918. Beaverbrook now led Britain’s Ministry of Information, and Ivor Castle probably orchestrated the composite, although he was still nominally attached to the Canadian War Records Office. At Raines & Co the photographs in the exhibition were printed in sepia, then broadly hand coloured with spray guns, before being coloured in detail by hand. They were mistakenly assumed by some daily newspapers to be colour photographs.~x Mounted prints measuring 1.3 by 1 metres were on sale for £150, with an additional 50% added for hand colouring. The catalogue to the exhibition proclaimed:
Great Record of the War
No photographic exhibition has ever been attempted on such a scale before. It comprises many thousands of square feet of photographs, coloured under the supervision of experts, with the most particular care to detail. Truth to colour has never been sacrificed for the sake of creating an impression, but nonetheless the impression which this amazing collection conveys will be ineffaceable. If all the Master Artists of the world had laboured for a year they could not have produced a record of War so humanly vivid, arresting and complete. One walks through the doors of the Grafton Galleries on to the grey flats of Flanders, and on to the golden but burning sands of the deserts of the east. It is as though one was transported on a magic carpet into the battle zone half the world over. This wonderful collection is the apotheosis of the camera. The unflinching eye of the lens has looked on the War
in all its aspects, and has recorded more faithfully even than any historian could do, the greatest and the smallest things in the greatest and most wonderful war in history.-
The centrepiece to the exhibition was the new ‘largest photograph in the world’ (figure 1), a hand-coloured composite, which, despite General Staffs request, was not identified as such:
Dreadnoughts of the Battlefield This, the largest photograph in the world, was taken during a recent advance on the Western Front. The tanks, those giant landships which indomitably plough the oceans of mud in France and Flanders, are moving forward to attack. In the photograph heavy shells may be seen bursting thickly in the line of their path, but no barrage daunts them. The picture is so vivid that it brings the realisation of modern battle into the heart of London. The best way to appreciate its wonders is to stand away from it as far as possible, when every detail will stand out in stereoscopic relief. The picture actually measures 23ft 6in by 17ft, without the frame, and it was necessary to make it in two sections, as the builders of the Galleries never anticipated a ‘canvas’ on such a scale. Neither doors nor windows could accommodate a picture of such gigantic dimensions.3″
This picture therefore subsumes into itself all previous and rival technologies: the humanity of the history paint¬ing, the magic carpet ride of cinema and the corporeally based illusionism of the stereoscope. The magnitude of this gesamtkunstwerk can only be achieved through composite montage, but this montage has to be disavowed in order to preserve the integrity of photographic verisimilitude, while inscribing it into a new regime of modernist spectacle. As a Ministry of Information press article commented: ‘It is a far cry from the old garish family group pasted in the album of Victorian days to the great picture twenty-four feet by seventeen feet showing the first tanks in action.'” When the King and Queen visited the exhibition to view ‘the soul of the War laid bare in pictures’, they remained for a long time in front of this picture. The King remarked that the photographs were the finest he had seen.32
After two months at the Grafton Galleries, the exhibition had been seen by a quarter of a million people and had raised £7000 for charity. The exhibition was then moved into the East End, to the People’s Palace in Mile End Road, presumably to address itself more directly to London’s working classes. A smaller version of the exhibition simultaneously toured smaller towns, and a set of battle photographs was prepared for dispatch to the United States.
Australian   Propaganda
The establishment of a Canadian War Records Office in January 1916 had been a model and a goad for Australia’s War Recorder, C.E.W. Bean, to agitate for the establish¬ment of an Australian War Records Section, which he finally achieved in June 1917. The Canadian office was always more generously resourced and commercially aggressive than the Australian section. Because of Lord Beaverbrook’s status as simultaneously Canadian War Records Officer, Chairman of the British War Office Cinematographic Committee, Peer, newspaper proprie¬tor and Whitehall power broker, the Canadian War Records Office had also had much more weight in London. In fact, in late 1917 and early 1918 Bean had to fend off several attempts by Beaverbrook to bring the entire Australian photography section under his wing.” The two organizations also took radically different approaches to their work. Bean was a reporter and a historian. Although he sometimes skewed his reportage for propaganda purposes, he was nonetheless committed above all else to making a record of the war, which he saw in nation building terms.’4 Beaverbrook was a poli¬tician and newspaperman, committed to propaganda and publicity and, above all, the management of public opinion.
Like Beaverbrook, however, Bean was also convinced of the crucial role the photograph must play in war records, not because of its propaganda charge but because of its status as an inviolable historical artifact. Beaverbrook used experienced English press photographers as Cana¬dian official photographers because they knew best the contemporary media landscape. Bean wanted to use Australian photographers to record Australian soldiers, because they would be contributing to the foundation of an Australian heritage. In August 1917 the two Australian photographers Bean had requested — Hubert Wilkins and Frank Hurley — were appointed directly to the Australian Imperial Forces.
After a few weeks at the front, one of the photogra¬phers, Frank Hurley, became convinced that the only way to make convincing battle photographs was to make composite prints. Hurley was already well acquainted with the techniques of composite printing. Before the war he had read a paper to the Photographic Society of New South Wales on the subject, demonstrating his study by combining several different negatives taken of different animals at the zoo into a single scene, complete with clouds.” * He had also made composite prints in London just before his appointment as an Australian official photographer.
In November 1916 Hurley had arrived in London as a hero. He was the photographer and cinematographer of the Shackleton Antarctic expedition, which had just returned to London after a sensational escape from the ice. On 5 December 1916 Hurley’s expedition photographs were published exclusively across all of the photography sections of the Daily Mirror. The Shackleton expedition had been financed against expected future earnings from the sale of the film and photograph rights. Because much material had been lost in the crushing of the Endurance or left on the ice, the backers of the exhibition decided that Hurley should return to South Georgia to shoot more wildlife scenes to supplement the Antarctic material. Before leaving in February 1917, however, Hurley worked in the darkrooms of the Daily Chronicle, owned by one of the expedition’s backers, as well as with the Paget Company, where his colour lantern slides ‘were developed, and at Raines & Co, where his negatives were printed. During this period, Hurley made the most of the limited number of plates that he had brought back from Antarctica by combining some of them into composite prints. He also worked with a variety of British companies to manufacture cutting-edge display technology for the marketing of the expedition’s photographs and films. Newtons, for instance, who were lantern slide experts, constructed a special lantern able to project colour images on to a screen five metres square.
Hurley was in London, working with the Shackleton material at Raines & Co and making composite prints, during the period when the Canadian exhibitions were being mounted. He would have easily recognized the printed-in clouds and composites, but his diary does not record that he visited the exhibitions. Nor does it record him meeting Castle until a week or so after his own decision to make composite prints of the fighting in Flanders.’
Hurley and Charles Bean had a running argument, extended over several days, about Hurley’s right to make composites.37 The idea was anathema to Bean, for whom the war photograph was becoming a sacred, inviolable historical artefact. The example of the Canadian composites was there for each man to draw upon as they argued. Bean wrote in his diary:
[HIad a long argument with Hurley who wants to be allowed to make ‘composite’ pictures for his exhibition … I can see his point, he has been nearly killed a dozen times and has tailed to get the pictures he wants — but we will not have it at any price. The Canadians to some extent print their battle pictures with shell bursts from other photos — but we don’t want to rival them in this.’
Hurley, on the other hand, declared to his diary:
I am unwilling and will not make a display of war pictures unless the Military people see their way clear to give me a free hand. Canada has made a great advertisement out of their pictures, and I must beat them.’
At about this time Beaverbrook had approached Hurley to make composite prints for the Canadians outside of the Australian areas. ” This may have been what emboldened Hurley to threaten to resign he if did not get his way. Australian GHQ eventually gave Hurley permission to reproduce six composites, requesting only that they be clearly labelled as such.
In early November Bean sent Hurley to Palestine to cover the Australian Light Horse. Away from the stric¬tures of the front and of Bean, he flourished. He found the Australian light horse battalions amenable to staging re-enactments for the camera. He met with the commanders beforehand and planned with them whole, day-long programmes of ‘stunts’.
In late 1917, while Hurley was still in Palestine, the other Australian photographer, Lieutenant Wilkins, chose the Australian photographs for the exhibition of Imperial Photographs. Each country had its own gallery, and a giant enlargement dominated each gallery. Incongruously, the Australian mural enlargement was not of a battle scene, but was a triumphal image of the Band of the 5th Australian Infantry Brigade marching confidently through the still smoking ruins of the French town of Bapaume (figure 6). Bean visited the exhibition, and it did not escape his notice that some of the Canadian photographs were composites. ‘Ours were simply and strictly true’, he observed, T would rather have them a thousand times’.
Hurley returned to London in May 1918 to prepare for the exhibition of Australian war pictures, organised in London through the Australian High Commission. He arranged to have 130 negatives printed, his six composites and other images enlarged to mural size at Raines & Co, and colour lantern slides made from the Paget colour plates. As well as Hurley’s composites, some of the photographs exhibited were of re-enactments. The Australian War Records Section attempted to ensure that they were given titles that protected them from the accusation of fake. For instance, a shot of a re-enactment of a charge at Gallipoli, probably taken behind the lines by the British official photographer Ernest Brooks, was entitled ‘Illustrating how the Australians charged the Turkish trenches at Gallipoli’. Some re-enactments slipped through the net, however, and officers visiting the exhibition commented upon those. The Australian War Records Section com¬plained to the Australian High Commission: ‘I have heard today a great deal of adverse comment upon the pictures. It comes from those who … know that the pictures cannot possibly be true, [they] say the obvious inaccuracy of the titling of the pictures made them doubt all the others, and in their opinion quite spoilt the whole show. Personally I am inclined to agree with them’. “
The exhibition still featured Hurley’s composites, however, most spectacularly showing a large composite exhibited under the protectively generalised title ‘The Raid’.43 The catalogue description of this composite was considerably more circumspect and ambiguous than the strident sensationalism of the captions for the Canadian and British composites, although it does retain their sense of cinematic montage.
The Raid
A large composite picture. Australian troops are seen advancing to the attack prior to the Battle of Broodseinde. A heavy enemy barrage is seen falling on the distant ridge. Aeroplanes are shown flying low for the purpose of machine gunning the enemy trenches. At the extreme right of the picture is an aeroplane down in flames. This picture shows the thick smoke and haze which are characteristic of the battlefield in this sector.44
Hurley was also keen to test the reaction of the soldiers to his composites:
Attired in civilian dress, I often mingled with the ‘diggers’ to hear their scathing criticism. When I find they approve and pass favourable judgement, then I feel confident such impression composites are justified.”13
Hurley’s composite was made up of twelve negatives and far surpassed Castle’s in intricacy. It was not coloured, however, nor was it the latest ‘largest photograph in the world’ (missing out by half a metre or so). Perhaps because giant composite murals had already been seen in London and perhaps because Hurley had no close personal links with the newspapers, the composites for which he had fought so hard aroused little interest in the London press. The lantern slides received more press attention. The British Journal of Photography reported that the half-hourly displays of half-plate Paget plates projected onto a full-size lantern screen were in fact the first real colour photographs to be exhibited of scenes and incidents of the war. Hurley’s status as an explorer photographer was also recognized, as well as his highly developed sense of the picturesque which, for the journal, was as important as the intrinsic interest of the subject. For instance, he exploited the emotional potential of colour by contrasting the ‘wealth of flower and foliage in France’ to the ‘ruin wrought by warfare close at hand’.41 The Times agreed:
A cluster of soldiers’ graves, described as ‘one of Australia’s most sacred spots’, is covered with flowers which have sprung from the shell scarred earth. It might seem that nothing could grow in such soil, and the ordinary photograph would have to be very good indeed to persuade to the contrary. But the coloured photograph is complete proof. These pictures …. should not be missed by any who would learn what photography can accomplish.
Like his British and Canadian counterparts, Bean was now fully attentive to the propagandistic potential of photographs and to the need to massage public opinion. Whilst the exhibition continued its run in London, Bean catalogued the official Australian photographs, including Hurley’s composites, that were to be made available for sale to the public directly from Australia House at a shilling each. Beaverbrook’s British Ministry of Informa¬tion was already selling official photographs directly to the public from a shop front at Piccadilly. Bean also produced several series of lantern slides for the recruiting authority in Australia. As he admitted, ‘the originator of this scheme was really Hurley’.
This extraordinary series of exhibitions attempted to engage, and then re-engage, the public directly in the war. Using all the new visual technologies then available, while drawing on familiar and long established modes of pictorial representation, they attempted to link the experience of the viewing public in London with the unimaginable experiences of those in the trenches. These images sold ‘thrills’ into a competitive marketplace, but thrills that attempted to bring together and reconnect a fracturing nation. Although these images coveted their authenticity, they were also willing to trade some of it in return for the values of coherent spectacle. Different propagandists and photographers evidently took different attitudes with respect to how many facts could be exchanged for how many thrills.
1. Beaverbrook, Memorandum for the Committee from the Minister of Information, House of Lords Records Office, BBK/E/3/4,  1918, 1.
2. J. Carmichael, First World War Photographers, London: Routledge 1989, 16.
3. Beaverbrook, Memorandum for the  Committee,  BBK/E/3/4,   1.
4. Beaverbrook, Report submitted by the Officer in charge, Imperial War Museum, Canadian War Records Office Records, 11 January 1917.
5. Ibid.
6. Beaverbrook, Draft of the ‘Ministry of Information, its Organisation and Work’ for publication in the Windsor magazine, HLRO, BBK/E/3/49, 18 June 1918.
7. Beaverbrook, Report submitted to the Officer in Charge, IWM, 13 March   1918.
8. Beaverbrook, Ministry of Information Minute, HLRO, BBK/E/2/18, 1918, 3.
9. For a more detailed discussion of illustrated newspapers during the First World War, see J. Taylor, War Photography: Realism in the British  Press,  London:  Routledge   1991,   18-51.
10. M. N. Lytton, Note from Photography Section, GHQ, to Ministry of Information, IWM, Ministry of Information files, Box 1, No. 3, 8 January 1918.
11. Canadian official photography is discussed in greater detail in, P. Robertson, ‘Canadian Photojournalism during the First World War’, History of Photography 2:1 (January 1978), 37-52.
12. Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Exhibition, London: 1916,”n.p.
13. Robertson,    ‘Canadian   Photojournalism’,43.
14. ‘Over the Top’, the meaning of a phrase now familiar. The Canadians making one of their brilliant attacks. Men leaving their trenches’, Illustrated London News, London (21  October 1916), 4.
15. ‘GOING OVER THE TOP: A CHARGE BY THE CANADIAN TROOPS ON THE SOMME FRONT’, The Daily Mirror, London (16 October 1916), 1.
16. ‘CANADIAN OFFICIAL WAR POSTCARDS’, The Daily Mirror, London (6 November 1916), 4.
17. Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Exhibition.
18. I. Castle, ‘With a camera on the Somme, by the Official Photographer with the Canadian Forces’, Canada in Khaki, London: Canadian War Records Office  1917, 68.
19. Robertson,   ‘Canadian   Photojournalism’,   43.
20. For a detailed study of parallel issues in propaganda films see N. Reeves, Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War, London: Croom Helm 1986 and N. Reeves, ‘Official British Film Propaganda’, The First World War and popular cinema 1914 to the present, New Brunswick:  Rutgers University Press 2000.
21. ‘News and Notes: Canadian War Photographs’, The British Journal of Photography (20 July 1917), 381.
22. Catalogue of the Canadian Official War Photographs Second Exhibition.
23. Ibid.
25. J. Buchan, Utter to Sir Reginald Brade, War Office, HLRO, BBK/ E/3, 14 August 1917.
26. C. E. W. Bean, C. E. W. Bean Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, 3DRL606, series 1, item 94, 20 November 1917.
27. B.-G. J. Charteris, Note to Major Neville Lytton, IWM, Ministry of Information files, 6 January 1917.
28. ‘Exhibitions: Imperial War Photographs in Colour’, The Britisli
Journal of Photography (8 March 1918),  117 and (15 March 1918),
29. ‘Catalogue of the British Official War Photographs in Colour London:
30. Ibid.
31. Beaverbrook, Draft of the ‘Ministry of Information, its Organisation and Work’ for publication in the Windsor magazine, 18 June 1918, HLRO, BBK/E/3/49, 18 June 1918, 9.
32. ‘SOUL OF THE WAR, The King’s tribute to Realism in Pictures, VISIT TO EXHIBITION’, The Daily Mirror Sunday Pictorial, (3 March 1918), 2.
33. C. E. W. Bean Diary, Australian War Memorial, AWM38, 3DRL606, series 1, item 94 20 November 1917, and Ministry of Information file note, IWM, Ministry of Information Files, Box 2, Number 4, 22 March 1918.
34. J. F. Williams, ‘The gilding of battlefield lilies’, The Quarantined Culture: Australian Reactions to Modernism 1013-19)9, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995, D. MCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: the Story of C.  E.   W.  Bean, Sydney: John Ferguson 1983.
35. F. Legg, Once More On My Adventure, Sydney: Ure Smith 1966, 20. F. Hurley, My Diary, Official War Photographer, Commonwealth Military Forces, from 21 August 1911 to 31 August 1918, typewritten manuscript, National Library of Australia, MS883, Series 1, Item 5, 26 October 1917.
38. 39.
This argument and Frank Hurley’s war photography are discussed in greater depth in M. Jolly, ‘Australian First World War Photography: Frank   Hurley   and   Charles   Bean’,   History   of Photography   23:   2 (Summer 1999), 141-148. C.  E.  W. Bean Diary, item 165, 71-72. Hurley, My Diary,  2 October 1917.
40. C.  E.  W.  Bean Diary, 20 November 1917.
41. McCarthy,  Gallipoli to the Somm, 314.
42. Captain Treloar to L. C. Smart, 25 May 1918, Re: Exhibition in the Grafton Galleries, AWM, AWM16, 4375/11/13, 25 May 1918. Catalogue of Australian Official War Pictures and Photographs, London: 1918. Ibid.
45. C. F. Hurley, ‘War Photography’, The Australasian Photo-Review (15 February 1919),  164.
46. ‘Colour Photography of the Battlefield’, The British Journal of Photography (7 June 1918), 24.
47. ‘Colour Photographs. Capt. Hurley’s Work in Palestine’, The Times, London,sssss (June 6, 1918), 5.
48. C. E.  W. Bean Diary, item 116, 26 June 1918.

5 thoughts on “Composite Propaganda Photographs during the First World War 2003

  1. Hi Martyn,

    A fascinating read. You’ve filled in a few gaps in my knowledge. I think it’s Frank Hurley on the ladder in your fig 1 (IWM Q 28580). There is a distinct likeness, but my eyesight is not what it once was!

    Best wishes



    • Thanks. It’s curious. The caption in your article mentions Ivor Castle and that could also be wrong, or perhaps it is him with his back to the camera? If it is Castle, it begs the same question as it’s not a Canadian photograph, but one shot by Warwick Brook….


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