William Rider-Rider, Untitled [Passchendaele], 1917. Library and Archives Canada

The other evening I was flicking through “Photography: A Cultural History" by Mary Warner Marien, a book I would recommend to anyone studying photography and on pages 228 - 229 I came across a photograph that made me pause and become transfixed by the double page spread of the photograph. The image was a panoramic photograph of Passchendaele, the third battle of Ypres on the western front during World War One and it was taken in 1917 by William Rider-Rider who was a British photographer but at the time employed as an official Canadian war photographer. The photograph shows a destitute, desolate and obliterated landscape where only tree trunks remain, their branches and leaves striped bare, the forsaken tree trunks sit in a landscape that is pitted with craters made by constant artillery bombardments now filled with water reflecting the sky and the wasteland of the killing fields of the first world war. The photograph was taken three years into the first world war, a war that is now being remembered 100 years later in its centenary in 2014.

The reproduction is from the Imperial War Museum and in the book it is tonally very dark and on first sight I just saw an empty landscape but on further inspection I noticed a solitary figure standing in the centre frame of the composition that was also hard to see as it was next to the central guttering of the book. I decided to do an online image search to find a better reproduction of the photograph and I found it in the Canadian government’s online library and archives site, the photograph had been split into two and again the reproduction was not very good but I found both parts of the photograph and stitched them together and digitally enhanced the photograph to slightly bring back some of the detail lost, the remastered image can be seen at the top of this post.

The battle for Passchendaele took place between July and November in 1917 for control of the south and east ridges of Ypres, West Flanders in the wettest weather for a generation that quickly turned the landscape into a muddy mire. The allied army made successive attacks over the five intervening months and each time the German fourth army successfully counter attacked until finally in November the Canadian corps captured the ridges at Passchendaele. The many battles in Flanders finally broke the German war machine but it was a finely balanced thing, the allies could had lost the war at this point with mass mutinies in the French army, submarine attacks on allied shipping and the Italian army routed by the Germans on the southern part of the western front. Germany only managed to continue fighting on the western front until 1918 due to reinforcements from the eastern front but over time the casualties were unsustainable and the odds against Germany winning the war were significantly decreased when America joined the allies sending an additional one million men to fight on the western front.

There has been always wars throughout human history, many of them just as bloody but never had there been a war in Europe on such a scale, a scale of destruction and mass slaughter that was made possible by the industrial revolution that mechanised warfare into such an effective killing machine. We did have a fore-taste of what was to come in the American Civil War of 1861-1865, the civil conflict that left over six hundred thousand soldiers dead, in the first world war 1914-1918 nine to ten million (figures seem to vary) combatants were left dead and many more left physically and mentally damaged. Given American’s experience of mechanised warfare from their civil war you can see why they were reluctant to get involved in the first world war, a war of old European empires. I am not a historian and there are many resources that can offer a more in-depth understanding of the why and what but for a quick overview of the war from the British perspective there has just been the BBC excellent documentary 'Britain's Great War' presented by Jeremy Paxman.

When I first viewed the photograph of Passchendaele by William Rider-Rider I was drawn to it’s tragic beauty, a strange thing to say or think of when you understand what the photograph was about, a new mechanised total warfare that took the lives of many young men and left many more physically wounded and mentally tormented. I think this element or notion of a tragic beauty in the photograph emerges from Rider-Rider’s carefully composed composition, a framed panoramic that heightens the expanse of the wasteland, an other worldly-ness. In this linear scape the verticals of the tree trucks could be seen the markers where the fallen now rest, the tree trunks like the soldiers that emerged from their trenches are exposed to all in the striped and bared landscape. It is human nature to be visually drawn not only to the beautiful and tranquil but also to the tragic and horror, just look at how people react when they see an accident or dramatic event, they stop to look and today they use their smart phones to record the event and share with others. This maybe just an innate all too human check on their own morality, an instinctual response to that which is dramatic or threatening, a curiosity of others misfortune, maybe thinking to themselves ‘there but for the grace of god, go I’. Looking at this photograph it reminds me of Joef Koudelka’s The Black Triangle series of photographs of the desolate coal mining industrial landscapes in northern Europe. Joef Koudelka refers to the photographs from The Black Triangle series as having a ‘horribly beautiful’ that is somehow visually compelling. Joef Koudelka photographs from this body of work employs the same panoramic framing as William Rider-Rider, a panoramic view that heightens the linearity of the landscape and encompasses our peripheral vision.

CZECH REPUBLIC. Black Triangle region (Ore Mountains). 1993. The limit of a coal-mine, © Josef Koudelka/Magnum Photos

What I am interested beyond remembering and understanding why the first world war started and what happen during the war was the way it change the future development of British society, how the war was documented on the home front as well as the western front through photography, a medium along with the moving image that captured and shaped our visual view and sense of the twentieth century. Photography had established itself over the past 60 years before the first world war as the medium that could best visually capture and convey what war and conflict was like from the American Civil War, the Crimean War to the Boer War, it was to supplant drawing that was traditionally used to visually record the actual event and painting that was done mostly after the event. The photographic medium could capture the instant and render the ‘real’ in an effective manner, the imagery of war was no longer recreated from memory as was the case with painting, it was now an exact document of a moment in time. Sometimes the photograph was staged to give it greater context as perhaps seen in William Rider-Rider’s photograph above, or it was staged for propaganda purposes which was often the case in war but in most cases photography just captured things as they were either in the heat of battle or those long drawn out mundane moments of waiting, the waiting for death and the witnessing of death. Photography proved an excellent medium to capture futility, rapture and the horror of war, the mechanical indifference of the camera had little time for the grandiose depictions of war that perhaps past art forms have leant themselves towards.

The photograph of Passchendaele is of a man altered landscape, it depicts a time in human history of utter waste and carnage, the madness humans can inflict upon one another and the world around them. It signalled the end of empires in Europe and a new world order that was finally shaped by another world war between 1939 to 1945 that saw the ultimate weapon of mass destruction, the atomic bomb. British society fundamentally change after the first world war, the old feudalism of the upper classes collapse as their sons perished on the western front, women got the right to vote, the working class were more empowered, the early shoots of the welfare state started to emerge as government took greater responsibility and control over the populace. Finally and joyfully for me at least Britain began to loose its empire (Britian in 1922 held sway of one-fifth of the world or nearly half a billion people) and return sovereignty back to people it had conquered and exploited over the past four hundred years, the right for self determination for better or worst is an improvement to that of subjugation and servitude of empire.

I will remember the first world war on one hand as an insane act in the history of humanity but also as a fracture from the past, a new beginning of modernity and democracy under the shadow of a new concept of total war, a war of mutual assured destruction.

Hiroshima : Click on image for larger view