I began my role as Museum Assistant at IWM in November 2021, at the same time as my fellow Kickstart placement Oliver. I was tasked with exploring the Second World War photograph collections on IWM’s Collections Online, and selecting images that we could use for future online content on particular themes – such as ‘celebration’ and ‘sport’.
I wanted to write this blog as a sort of homage to the many fascinating images I found along the way and to offer my thoughts on what I’d call ‘no-context-looking’. This was the practice that emerged during this process. Since this was my first encounter with these images I had very little prior knowledge of the subjects, the photographer, and the censorship of the relevant images. Consequently, I was forced to make my own aesthetic assumptions about the images and their context, something I believe can be both positive and dangerous, however I’d like to discuss this in more detail later. I’d also like to use this as a space to share some information you might find useful for using the IWM Collections webpage.
When the Second World War broke out in September 1939, just one Army photographer, Geoffrey Keating, and one cameraman, Harry Rignold, accompanied the British Expeditionary Force to France. On 24 October 1941, the Army agreed to form a corps of trained photographers and cameramen. The unit was called the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU).
Film and photography were viewed as a threat with the potential of exposing invaluable secrets and information. During the Second World War, the Ministry of Information was the primary base for censorship, whether it was film, photography or press articles. More specifically for photography, insignias or other parts of uniforms, bombing details, military bases or technology such as gun turrets were all censored. This provided a means for the Government to control information and centralise and manipulate the national narrative.
The war photographers employed by the British Army largely came from artistic backgrounds as either feature film or documentary cameramen. Life for these men was not radically different from their fighting colleagues as they were still subject to military discipline and security. Cameramen were also liable for combat if a soldier armed with a revolver were in an emergency. Find out more here.
As early as the First World War, the IWM has been used as the primary repository for British war photography, safe housing between 300,000 and 400,000 glass negatives from the Second World War. With many thousands of images available to view online, the breadth of subjects captured was staggering.
To begin with, I used the ‘photographs’ filter to hone into the relevant medium. I would then search my desired theme and select the relevant time-period via the filter options. Progress! Finally, the ‘Subjects’ filter enabled me to narrow down the results to the relevant subject matter. Whether I was looking for images of recreation or VE Day celebrations, the filter function enabled smoother and more efficient navigation of the IWM’s digitised collection.
Whilst many of the photographs that emerged from these searches appeared in pristine collection, others had been tampered with (see the example below). Glass negatives had been scratched, etched, and marked with all manner of squiggles. Most commonly these marks signalled areas of the composition that were to be cropped out. Subjects cropped were also people or vehicles, and sometimes it appeared to be an aesthetic decision.
Being my first moment of contact with these photographs I was lacking their context and held little or no knowledge of the photographer. Furthermore, the captions sometimes lack in information deeper than the immediate subject matter. This is largely due to them being the original image captions written during the conflict.
Naturally my assumptions about why these images were cropped were ill-informed, however I soon realised that this mode of looking privileged me with a unique position. I was encountering the photographs and their content from a fresh perspective, judging compositions on their immediate merits.
The image below prompted many questions - why it was cropped? Was it to censor a specific member of the ensemble? Does gender play a role in the decision? Although I’ve been unable to discover why the RAF figure was cropped, I can assume it was probably to conceal the woman’s identity. More generally I think it’s fascinating that the original, scratched negatives have been kept. Seeing the scarring marks of the MOI etched over the monochrome subjects, signals to me the dialogue between personal experiences and the wider national and political narratives present in all conflict.
Ultimately, my practice of ‘no-context looking’ offered me a rewarding first aesthetic encounter, as well as enabling me to cultivate a critical and creative eye. For example, because of my own lack of prior knowledge, the inferences I drew from each scene were not clouded by an understanding of each scene according to a learnt history. Instead, I could draw out a wide range of possible ideas about the subjects and the motives for cropping. This became a sort of brainstorm for my initial critical, no-context ideas.
However, at what point does this divorce of context become counter-productive and potentially dangerous? I believe that whilst this practice can be fruitful for first encounters, the lack of knowledge either stunts ones reading of an image or produces an ill-informed understanding of the subjects, their inter-relations, and the wider historical picture. In many ways, one can never truly understand an image without knowing its history. However, I don’t believe this is essential to enjoy, engage and appreciate an image.
I’ll leave this with you; however, I do hope this blog will encourage you to engage with the IWM’s digitised collection and has informed you about navigating its webpage.