Tag Archives: photojournalism

Review: Battlescapes (Buellesbach & Cowper)

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Battlescapes: A Photographic Testament to 2,000 years of Conflict.

It’s certainly not a fault of this book that it prepares a potential visitor to the battlefields of Europe to see a whole lot of nothing. Except in the locations of memorials and cemeteries, the woods have grown back and the fields have reverted to farming. Life goes on.

That’s the way it ought to be, of course. Despite the sadness we feel when confronted with a massive loss of human life, and the disgust we feel when we consider the value of the human capital wasted and the genetic potential lost forever, it is a far greater honor to the dead for later generations to have encouraged the natural landscape to recover and thrive, and to have reaped abundant harvests from the croplands, both so thoroughly fertilized by the flesh, blood and bones of so many.

For that is essentially why they died, during the First and Second World Wars: to save beauty from the boot heels of imperial tyranny and totalitarian oppression, and to preserve lives and livelihoods assured by agriculture practiced in freedom.

This is a cloth-covered, hardbound book with a dust cover, and hefty enough from its thick, glossy pages to make it hard to handle if not read from a desktop. Concise text summaries accompany stunning color photography dominated by spacious two-page spreads that do a fine job of carrying the reader to each site. Different seasons and weather conditions are portrayed. A brief battlefield visitor’s guide offers helpful tourist information for each location, as well as some website URLs. It has an adequate index.

The First World War sites the volume visits are Ypres, the Dolomites, the Isonzo, Verdun, the Somme, and Vimy Ridge, but the book covers 28 other battlefields, dating from September, 52 BC to April, 1945, so it makes a suitable gift for any armchair general.

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Review: The Somme (Barton & Banning)

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The Somme.*

Most of the books I review on this blog I have read twice. I’m working my way through my third trip into this one, and it’s slow going.

Its approach is not out of the ordinary: quotations and commentary interspersed with photographs and maps; however, its composition on the page vastly complicates the job of reading it.

The book is printed in landscape format, the better to accommodate the multi-fold panoramic photos, the perusal of which entail lengthy digressions from the text. Moreover, the text is distributed across three columns that are distractingly broken up by numerous small illustrations, many of which are period monochrome photos that are too dark to provide helpful detail in contact-sheet size; but many of these are popular or iconic images, so researchers likely will have access to much larger copies in other books.

The other interrupting illustrations are excerpts from period campaign maps, and in the main are too small to be enlightening. Large sections of the maps are also provided, but while they have the advantage of color-coding, which is lacking in the line-drawn reproductions found in most books, the original maps still suffer from the same confusing clutter that curse most such diagrams. The accompanying panoramic photo spreads may have been meant to help ameliorate this difficulty, but a reader looking at a photo still lacks the three-dimensional immediacy that would have made the maps meaningful to soldiers at the front. In other words, “You had to be there.”

Diagrams of trench construction features provide helpful insight into the complexity of static warfare. Many period panoramas are accompanied by color photography of the modern landscape, which alleviate some of the monochrome monotony of a work of this magnitude. Quotations from battle participants are typeset in italics, which simplifies their identification, but can become difficult to read in long passages.

The sections and chapters in the table of contents are creatively entitled in theatrical terms as acts and scenes. The appendices include a timeline and a hierarchy chart to explain army structure; further reading is suggested; sources and pictures are credited in separate sections. The index, spread over five pages of five columns each, does its job. The book’s format and weight make almost imperative the use of a table or large lap desk for comfortable reading.

This book is clearly meant for the serious researcher. It may make a good gift for an armchair general who has the leisure to delve deeply, but not for anyone who wants only a quick battlefield stroll.

* The cover of my copy bears the subtitle, The Unseen Panoramas, and neither that nor the pictured subtitle appears on the title page.

 

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Review: The Germans on the Somme (Bilton)

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The Germans on the Somme: Rare Photographs from Wartime Archives.

This work brings the Anglophone reader as close to the German experience of the Battle of the Somme as possible without its being a translation

The book is heavily illustrated throughout with nearly all unique photographs (often snapshots taken by German soldiers), which are accompanied by informative captions. Some are postcards, and at least one image appears to have been manipulated for propaganda purposes: the purported “cordial relations” with the occupied French, which the posing of German soldiers with a group of frankly frightened children is meant to illustrate, falls a little flat. It was unrealistic for Germany to expect its soldiers to look good at “baby-kissing,” but the men at the front wanted to feel justification for the role they were playing in prosecuting a dubiously “defensive” war.

A quantity of photographic funeral memorial cards are also reproduced, which give human identity to faces which elsewhere in English-language Great War literature are designated generically as “Fritz” or “Jerry.” These were real people, who left behind real families who suffered from their absence and mourned their loss.

The text is organized chronologically, and is supplemented by an abbreviated timeline of Somme battlefield events. There is a brief bibliography, but no index.

This is a good quality paperback publication that will bring value to any Great War library.

 

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