Picturing the Western Front

Photography, practices and experiences in First World War France

Author: Beatriz Pichel

How did photography articulate individual and collective experiences of the war? This question situates photography at the centre of historical analysis, contending that what we do with photographs (taking, collecting, classifying, exhibiting, looking at and posing for them) shapes how we make sense of what we live through. Picturing the Western Front offers an innovative analysis of the ways in which the practice of photography shaped combatants’ and civilians’ war experiences between 1914 and 1918. Despite military restrictions, photographs were everywhere: the war archives classified thousands of pictures, combatants compiled their own photographic albums and civilians learnt about war developments through the images published in heavily illustrated journals. The study of the material produced by the French military photographic service Section photographique de l’armée, amateur photographers and illustrated magazines such as Sur le Vif reveals that photography mattered not only because of what it showed, but also because of the practices it entailed. Photography recorded events that were then kept in archives and collections, shaping the future histories of the war; shaped affective relationships with others and helped to domesticate the inhospitable environment of the trenches; gave a visual and material body to abstract ideas such as the legal distinction ‘Mort pour la France’ (dead for France); placed people and events in particular landscapes (physical and metaphorical) and made some war events visible while making others, such as suicide, invisible. Photographic practices became, thus, frames of experience: a framework that turned the raw flow of life events into experiences.

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