Photography: First World War, 1914–1918

by Photo Life

J.A. Spencer, Starting on patrol. From the album Airships, Rigid and Non-Rigid, Howden, 1916–1919. Album: 30 gelatin silver prints and leather cover, 15.7 × 13.5 × 3.3 cm. Anonymous Gift, 2004. 2004/654.1.20 © 2018 Art Gallery of Ontario

From November 10 through April 14, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) in Toronto is presenting the second part of Photography: First World War, 1914–1918. This exhibition showcases the AGO’s almost 500 albums from this era from and around the world.

When I first heard about this exhibition, it made me think of the album that my grandfather made while serving in the Second World War; I used to love looking through it, wondering what his life must have been like back then. He had tons of photos from the base and from the air too. He even saved the flak from when he got shot at while on missions and the fabric map they carried with them too. Personal albums like these offer insight into the experiences of those who lived through these wars, and the AGO’s collection of First World War albums is an amazing historical resource.

Exhibition Overview

“The First World War is recognized as a period of mass violence and destruction, but also as a beginning. The war ushered in technological innovation, mechanizing and recording war in ways previously impossible. The growing pervasiveness of photography resulted in a conflict well-documented by military officials, press agencies, and amateurs alike.

The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) holds nearly 500 albums from this period, a unique and extensive collection donated in 2004 by a private collector. The albums reveal different aspects of the relationship between warfare and photography; retrospectively, all of them—personal, official, and commercial—engage in a dialogue with history by presenting unique visual narratives that uphold or challenge historical perceptions of war. The breadth of albums and accounts—British, French, German, Canadian, Austrian, American, Australian, Italian, Czech, and Russian—expose the multiplicities of experience as well as the commonalities of war.

Adjacent to the main display, the McEwen Gallery will showcase works by Australian war photographer James Francis “Frank” Hurley (1885–1962), who was on official assignment throughout World War I. His album Australian Units on the Western Front (1916–1918) presents a series of compelling photographs, each offering views of different aspects of life on the Front. Soldiers, in action and at ease, are pictured, as well as the grimmer realities of war: casualties, scorched landscapes, and destroyed architecture. The album—disassembled for the exhibition—highlights Hurley’s skill as a photographer and features a rich breadth of imagery.

These exhibitions present visitors with a rich opportunity to explore these photographic objects that construct a history of aerial technology and photography, which influenced the operation and outcome of the First World War, a visual record of war that is often left unseen. Together, they contributed to the beginning of a visual consciousness of war that resonates to this day.”

Unknown American, Photographic room and detachment: reviewing surveillance pictures, 1914 – 1918. Silver gelatin print. Anonymous gift, 2004. 2004/514 © 2018 / Art Gallery of Ontario.


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