Contrary to popular opinion I don't devour everything about the First World War that I can lay my hands on. Mametz Wood is an act of imagination, a reflection on how a battle can transform our perceptions of place and I have source material aplenty for that in David Jones' long modernist poem In Parenthesis. It’s more about a collective memory than specific events, or reminiscences. I'm about to read its 225 pages for the sixth time in order to research more titles for my next batch of photographs. Reading David Jones’ words and making the images are a challengingly emotional experience, so it's a relief to escape elsewhere when I can.
So when Al Brydon suggested I'd be interested in the BBC4 documentary Hidden Histories: The Lost Photographs of World War One, I was actually a bit tentative. With a few exceptions the images were exactly as expected: groups of friends, officers or privates and big bushy moustaches followed by the descent to vacant 1000 yard stares as the war took it's toll. There was one serious exception in the photographs of a 16-year-old German gunner Walter Kleinfeldt who actually photographed bodies. Here he is, in the early days of the war apparently cheerfully carrying a box of munitions through the trenches.
Photography was banned by the British army in 1915 for fear of contradicting government propaganda when soldier’s photographs were published in newspapers or sent to relatives. So with a few exceptions the later, nastier years of the war aren't covered well by photography from the British and their allies. There was no such prohibition by the German forces and perhaps that in part explains the potency of Walter Kleinfeldt’s photographs. Yet he had an extraordinary grasp of photographic narrative and in the image below a potent metaphor for the futility of war. The bodies he photographed strewn across the battlefield weren't distinguishable by nationality or rank; there were no insignia visible. They could be anyone, they could be us. They were us. They are, as his (now elderly) son Volkmar said, “...a powerful admonition against war.”.
Walter Kleinfeldt went on to run a camera shop in Tubingen until his death in 1945. He never showed these photographs to his family; his son discovered them only three years ago. We can only speculate that he had no desire to revisit those experiences; and that, perhaps, the photographs acted as a form of catharsis; a finality, a sealing, a cleansing? One can only hope they did. He apparently continued to love photography and what better purpose can photography serve other than as a salve for the soul. Especially a soul that witnessed the horrors of the Somme at an age when most of us were still in school. I think I can understand that, my pictures, in part, play that role for me too.