What the public remembers, it remembers in pictures. Wars, even more than other events, tend to survive in the popular imagination not just as a chronology of events, but also as an archive of images.
When it comes to remembering the World War I, most of us have had to content ourselves with a visual inheritance almost exclusively limited to black and white photography. No longer.
In a new book edited by historian Peter Walther, an extraordinary set of color images from the wartime photographer Hands Hilderbrand will be published for the first time. The pictures force us to alter our impression of the war as a gray and cloudy affair, confronting us instead with an unsettling portait of devastating iridescence.
As Europeans massacred one another with unprecedented efficiency on the fields of Flanders, they were greeted with sunshine and lush landscapes. As rounds of amunition dimpled the topography of Belgium and France, a new season would cause flowers to bloom over the craters left by explosive shells.
Color photography has been practiced since the late nineteenth century, but until very recently, only a handful of experts were aware of the existence of color documentation of World War I. The only color photos of the war that actually appeared at the time were taken by French photographer Jules Gervais-Courtellemont, who published his scenes from the Marne and Verdun with an accompanying text.
Now we know that German war photographers also took photos in color, using the same "autochrome" method used by the French. Hans Hildenbrand, one of 19 official photographers contracted by the German regime to document the war, was the only practitioner of color photography to record the war from a German perspective. His photos are mostly from Alsace and Champagne in 1915 and 1916.
Technological limitations forced Hildenbrand and other contemporary photographters to produce images using only mixtures of red, green, and blue. This limited palette lends the photos an uncanny, almost fluorescent quality. The scenes in the pictures are posed, not in order to satisfy war censors or serve propaganda efforts, but rather because the film Hildenbrand was not sensitive enough to capture movement.
Although some limits were placed on the German wartime photographers -- they were not allowed, for instance, to photograph weapons systems or strategically sensitive facilities -- the most striking thing about Hilderbrand's photos is the immense freedom he enjoyed to document scenes of horrendous destruction. Whereas during World War II governments began to restrict the distribution of destructive images, fearing negative consequences for civilian morale, no such handicaps burdened photographers during World War I. The result, both beautiful and terrible, dramatically enriches our visual understanding of what many hoped would be the war to end all wars.
"Endzeit Europa. Ein Kollektives Tagebuch deustchsprachiger Schriftsteller," edited by Dr. Peter Walther, was published this year by Wallstein-Verlag. The book is available in German from the SPIEGEL Shop.
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