War photography brings the action to the public

Date: 1900-1999
Unit: War photography

War photography is a specialised business. Many of the best remembered photographs taken in the 20th Century involved war and the human suffering they caused.

Countless photographers have put their lives on the line over the years to bring the public graphic images of war. Hundreds have died in the process.

Today's photographers use 35mm cameras with a range of lenses that enable them to be mobile and get close up to the action. Telephoto lenses compress the scene while wide angle lenses place the subject in the context of his or her suffering.

Who will forget the famous photograph taken by Damien Parer in World War II of the Australian soldier with bandaged eyes being helped down a muddy hillside in New Guinea by his mate? Or the photograph of a young naked girl fleeing down the road following a napalm attack in Vietnam or the Eddie Adams photograph of a Communist terrorist being executed by a South Vietnamese officer?

But war photography goes back much further. The first systematic coverage of war took place when Roger Fenton travelled to photograph the Crimean War in 1854. During the American Civil War, photographers such as Mathew Brady were almost commonplace. But the photographers travelled with huge cameras that were mounted on solid tripods and could only take one photograph at a time before a new plate had to be loaded. A mobile darkroom was often drawn by a horse and cart.

The photographer would frame his picture on the ground glass screen at the rear of the camera, his head covered by a dark cloth to keep out the light. Then he'd load the plate and take the photograph, often with an exposure of more than a minute. For this reason, action photographs were rare.

Ways to speed up and improve the reproduction of photographs became the order of the day and progressed through photolithography in 1855 to woodburytype in 1866, the collotype two years later and finally, in the 1880s, the halftone. This method of reproduction was used by newspapers and magazines for many years until the comparatively recent development of offset printing.

By the time the Boer War started, photographers were slightly more mobile but their cameras were still huge and mounted on tripods. By then, stereoscopic pictures were all the rage. This involved taking two photographs of the same scene with two lenses mounted side by side. The pictures were then viewed in a hand-held device which also had two lenses and gave a three-dimensional effect.

The accompanying photographs are fine examples of this genre. Whilst not showing real action, they certainly give the viewer an idea of the conditions Australian troops faced during their time in South Africa.

They were published in 1900 and 1901 by Underwood & Underwood, a company with offices in New York, London, Toronto and Ottawa, as well as works and studios in Arlington - New Jersey, Littleton - New Hampshire and Washington - DC.

They came as two volumes in a box container to represent two leather bound books.

Some of the cameras used by professional and amateur photographers to record the wars. include: A - Kodak Six-16 box camera c1939, B - Kodak Brownie cardboard box camera c1907, C - Kodak No 2 Folding Brownie camera with maroon bellows c1904, D - Leica IIIF 35mm camera c1950, E - Kodak Bantam 35mm camera c1938, F - Lumiere Macris Bouncher stereo camera, c1920, G - Voigtlander Inos 120 folding camera c1933, H - Kodak XXX folding camera. (Front left to right) I - Rollieflex 120 twin-lens reflex camera c1937, J - Nikon F 35mm camera c1962, K - Kodak folding autograph camera c1914, L - Kodak 35mm camera (military model) in olive green c1938.


Last updated: 31 May 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), War photography brings the action to the public, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/war-photography-brings-action-public
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