The First Color Photos From World War I: The German Front

Hildebrand 1

On June 28, 1914, Gavri­lo Prin­cip assas­si­nat­ed Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand of Aus­tria. Most of us know this — or at least if we don’t know the exact date, we know it hap­pened in 1914, 100 years ago. We also know that the spark of the killing ignit­ed the inter­na­tion­al geopo­lit­i­cal tin­der­box just wait­ing to flame into the First World War. Yet as mil­i­tary his­to­ri­ans often remind us, no one event can real­ly start a con­flict of that unprece­dent­ed scale any more than one event can stop it. The sec­ond half of the year 1914 saw a series of inter­re­lat­ed crises, respons­es, counter-crises, and counter respons­es that, these hun­dred years on, few of us could cite off the top of our heads.

ww i color photos 3

We can com­pen­sate for the cen­tu­ry between us and the Great War by read­ing up on it, of course. Of the count­less vol­umes avail­able, I per­son­al­ly rec­om­mend Geoff Dyer’s The Miss­ing of the Somme. But noth­ing brings home the detailed real­i­ty of this ever-more-dis­tant “huge mur­der­ous pub­lic fol­ly,” in the words of J.B. Priest­ly, like look­ing at col­or pho­tos from the front.

Hildebrand 2

That col­or pho­tog­ra­phy exists of any­thing in mid-1910s Europe, much less as momen­tous and dis­as­trous a peri­od as World War I, still sur­pris­es some peo­ple. We owe these shots to the efforts of Ger­man pho­tog­ra­ph­er Hans Hilde­brand, as well as to his coun­try’s already-estab­lished appre­ci­a­tion for the art and adept­ness in engi­neer­ing its tools. “In 1914, Ger­many was the world tech­ni­cal leader in pho­tog­ra­phy and had the best grasp of its pro­pa­gan­da val­ue,” writes R.G. Grant in World War I: The Defin­i­tive Visu­al His­to­ry. “Some 50 pho­tog­ra­phers were embed­ded with its forces, com­pared with 35 for the French. The British mil­i­tary author­i­ties lagged behind. It was not until 1916 that a British pho­tog­ra­ph­er was allowed on the West­ern Front.” But among his coun­try­men, only Hilde­brand took pic­tures in col­or.

S. 237: Schützengraben im Oberelsass. (Foto: Hans Hildenbrand)

The over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of pho­tos tak­en dur­ing World War I were black and white,” writes Spiegel Online, where you can browse a gallery of eigh­teen of his pho­tos, “lend­ing the con­flict a stark aes­thet­ic which dom­i­nates our visu­al mem­o­ry of the war.” Hilde­brand’s images thus stand out with their almost unre­al-look­ing vivid­ness, a result achieved not sim­ply by his use of col­or film, but by his rel­a­tive­ly long expe­ri­ence with a still fair­ly new medi­um. He’d already found­ed a col­or film soci­ety in his native Stuttgart three years before the Arch­duke’s assas­si­na­tion, and had tried his hand at autochrome print­ing as ear­ly as 1909.

S. 241: Schützengraben im Oberelsass.(Foto: Hans Hildenbrand)

Though not him­self a dyed-in-the-wool pro­pa­gan­dist, he did need to pose the sol­diers for these pho­tos, due to the lack of a film sen­si­tive enough to cap­ture actu­al action. Still, they give us a clear­er idea of the sit­u­a­tion than do most con­tem­po­rary images. Hard­ly a glo­ri­fi­ca­tion, Hilde­brand’s work seems to speak to what those of us now, one hun­dred years in the future, would come to see in World War I: its mis­ery, its oppres­sive sense of futil­i­ty, and the haunt­ing destruc­tion it left behind.

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via Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch World War I Unfold in a 6 Minute Time-Lapse Film: Every Day From 1914 to 1918

British Actors Read Poignant Poet­ry from World War I

Frank W. Buck­les, The Last U.S. Vet­er­an of World War I

World War I Remem­bered in Sec­ond Life

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on cities, lan­guage, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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