Select an image by any photographer of your choice and take a photograph in response to it. You can respond in any way you like to the whole image or to just a part of it, but you must make explicit in your notes what it is that you’re responding to. Is it a stylistic device such as John Davies’ high viewpoint, or Chris Steele Perkins’ juxtapositions? Is it the location, or the subject? Is it an idea, such as the decisive moment? Add the original photograph together with your response to your learning log. Which of the three types of information discussed by Barrett provides the context in this case? Take your time over writing your response because you’ll submit the relevant part of your learning log as part of Assignment Five.
Original photograph Response photograph
Contextualising the original photograph
In his essay entitled ‘Photographs and context’ Terry Barrett (Barrett, 1997) offers a framework for the interpretation of a photograph. The internal context includes the picture itself, it’s title, date and photographer. The external context refers to its ‘presentational environment’ eg what publication it appears in, the other images surrounding it. Finally, the original context which Barrett describes as the physical and psychological environment in which the photographer existed at the time the photograph was taken.
The photograph entitled ‘Troops of the 10th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (37th Division) marching to the trenches, St-Pol-sur-Ternoise’ was taken by Ernest Brooks in November 1916. The image shows a Battalion of British soldiers marching from (I believe) a corps reserve camp to the frontline probably on the morning of 14 November. They joined other forces to fight in the Battle of the Ancre, which was the final large British attack during the Battle of the Somme.
The image shows dry, clean, rested and (bizarrely) smiling soldiers posing for the shot marching on their way to such a ghastly experience. Looking at their faces it’s hard to see any fear or trepidation. Yet 2,500 of these men from 37th Division alone were to die in this one battle from 13 to 24 November.
The photograph was taken by Lieutenant Ernest Brooks (1876-1957) a British army officer and the only professional photographer during the Battle of the Somme. Presumably part of his remit would have been to produce images showing healthy smiling soldiers for domestic propaganda purposes.
Between 1 July and 18 November 1916 casualties numbered more than 1 million… Not much to smile about.
The original ‘presentational environment’ for Brooks’ photographs (such as the one above above) would have been domestic newspapers with the purposes of informing and reassuring the public on the progress of the war. As such clean, healthy, smiling soldiers would have fitted the bill. The images were censored prior to media release to ensure the correct messages were being sent.
Brooks was a professional photographer employed by and subject to the discipline of the British army. Indeed he was the only professional photographer serving during the Battle of the Somme. He would have appreciated the need for appropriate photographs being available for his employers.
He has deliberately posed healthy, clean, smiling soldiers in a bright dry setting. They look more like they are off to a stag weekend than to near certain death.
Contextualising the response photograph
The photograph was taken at the Poppy Wave exhibition at Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth during May 2018. It shows part of the poppy display; each poppy signifying a lost soldier and framed so as to mirror Brooks’ WW1 image. The middleground guns and the background cage, containing old broken military parts, juxtapose the peaceful remembrance poppies.
The presentational environment for the poppy image is clearly to be seen alongside Brooks’ original photograph.
The poppy flourished in the battlefields of the Western Front during World War 1 and was adopted as a symbol of remembrance following of the publication of the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by the Canadian soldier and doctor, John McCrae.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In 2014 I visited the Tower of London poppies with my daughters. The exhibition contained 888,246 handmade red poppies; one for each of the British and Commonwealth men and women who died during WW1.
Recently a smaller poppy exhibition has been held at Fort Nelson near Portsmouth.
In Barrett’s terms my psychological environment when taking the photograph was that I wanted to symbolise the sadness and anger I feel when I look at Brooks’ image. The innocent smiling healthy soldiers just got turned into poppies.
The context in this case…
To me the relevant context in relation to this image is the original context; that is to say the psychological environment. What was Brooks’ intention when taking this image and how did I want to respond?
Brooks chose to feature healthy young men (including what looks like a boy in the front right of his image) marching into a battle which had previously involved the bloodiest day in British military history. How he got them to smile is, I guess, testament to his skill as a photographer.
My response was simply to try to highlight the futility of the situation.
Barrett, T. (1997). Photographs and Contexts. [ebook] Available at: http://terrybarrettosu.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/B_PhotAndCont_97.pdf [Accessed 29 May 2018].
Brooks, E. (1916). Troops of the 10th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (37th Division) marching to the trenches, St Pol (Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise), November 1916.. [image] Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205072867 [Accessed 17 May 2018].
McCrae, J. (1915). First World War Poems – In Flanders Fields by John McCrae. [online] Greatwar.co.uk. Available at: http://www.greatwar.co.uk/poems/john-mccrae-in-flanders-fields.htm [Accessed 29 May 2018].