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How to access war photographs

Watch Bruce Scates guide you through the process of accessing war photographs on the Australian War Memorial website.
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PROFESSOR BRUCE SCATES: The Great War was a photographic war. As early as 1915, the War Office in London was issuing every Battalion with a camera. And of course, men carried their Kodaks into battle. Now, this is the website for the Australian War Memorial, and we’re looking at the entry for photographers. Photography served sound military purposes. Photographs from land, from sea, and most importantly, from the air, monitored the enemy’s movements, located his guns, and plotted his trench lines. But cameras played another role as well. For families back home, this was a window into the war experience– a way of imagining battles fought far away, and connecting with the experience of their loved ones.
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Photographs had an air of authenticity about them– an immediacy, a reality. This was a witness to the war. Australia’s most famous photographer was Frank Hurley here. Here, Hurley’s depicted in the observer’s seat of an aircraft in Palestine. Hurley bought his first camera in 1902, and in 1914, he joined Shackleton’s expedition to the Antarctic. It was there that he captures these remarkable images of a frozen world.
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During the war, Hurley’s appointed as a war photographer, and he serves in Palestine, in Belgium, and in France, and you can access hundreds of his images online from the Australian War Memorial website. In the Middle East, Hurley records in exotic landscape. Just as individual soldiers captured their encounter with foreign people at foreign places, Hurley recorded the ANZAC Mounted Division’s journey across the Holy Land. Some of the images are highly romanticised, mindful of public taste, and the kind of crusade a narrative through which the war in the Middle East was so often viewed.
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Other photographs, like this one, suggest something of the brutality of battle in the desert, a war fought over vast distances, and against the elements as much as the enemy. Hurley’s photographs of the Western Front have become almost iconic representations of war. They appear natural and realistic, and it’s true Hurley went closer to the front line than most other official war artists, but they’re also carefully crafted. These ruined landscapes seem somehow picturesque, and the public back home was at once entranced and horrified by the destructive power of that industrialised war. This picture’s charged with a potent symbolism. Historians have argued that these dead trees act as a metaphor for dead men.
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And of course, this battered forest will one day regenerate, just as the community one day will recover from the waste and the trauma of war. It’s been suggested that photographs have the authenticity of the archive that recorded events, people, places, a vicarious view of battle that families back home could share, but this is hardly a window into reality. This famous photograph by Hurley purports to show Australians charging into battle, but really it’s just an elaborate fake. Hurley created this photograph through a composite of different images woven together to depict a single scene. And in a way, in a way that was necessary.
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Quite apart from the dangers of front-line photography, the smoke and the speed of battle– the fog of war, if you like– made it impossible to construct this experience in any other way. You can view virtually all the Hurley collection from both World Wars on the Australian War Memorial’s website, and why not compare Hurley’s work with that of other war photographers, both from Britain and the Dominions? The online collection of the Imperial War Museum is really the perfect place to begin. [PIANO MUSIC PLAYING]

Watch Bruce Scates guide you through the process of accessing war photographs on the Australian War Memorial website.

Note: Websites referred to in this presentation were accessed in early 2015 and there may have been minor modifications to some of the sites since then.

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