World War I: The Picture Starts to Form

Water baseball. Photo by Bain News Service, 27 July 1914. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.16651

Water baseball. Photo by Bain News Service, 27 July 1914. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.16651

As I was trolling through Bain News Service photographs from 100 years ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on how hindsight shapes our view of pictures and their meaning.

I stopped in my tracks at this photo from July 27, 1914, with its evocative depiction of cooling recreation on a warm day.  Despite the somewhat suspicious look on the face of the young man at the left, and some of the other unsmiling faces turned towards the photographer, I see the scene as more carefree than the content actually conveys, because of the specific date associated with the photo. The next day, July 28th, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, launching World War I.

Naturally, viewers at the time would not have had this perspective. Some newspapers took note of the hostilities in their headlines for July 28th, but newspaper readers may not have immediately pictured the violence to come, partly because military action was initially minimal and the visual coverage, to the extent that there was any, tended to focus on the faces of the leaders of the warring countries.

By early August, however, the realities of war were becoming more visible. Readers of the Sunday Oregonian for August 9th, for example, could witness, through photographs distributed by the Bain News Service and other news photo operations, armies gathering at the ready and armored trains and ships on the move.1 Among the pictures published that day, the original photographs of the Serbian and Austrian armies survive, along with hundreds of other photographs relating to the war, in the George Grantham Bain Collection.

Austrian Infantry. Photo by Bain News Service, [1914?]. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.11447

Austrian Infantry. Photo by Bain News Service, [1914?]. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.11447

Servian Military Cadets. Photo by Bain News Service, [1914?]. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.16668

Servian Military Cadets. Photo by Bain News Service, [1914?]. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ggbain.16668

In the last days of July 1914, Americans looking at the headlines were likely absorbing events in Europe as one of many conflicts abroad (strife in Ireland, unrest in China) interspersed with local concerns (the El Paso Herald for July 28, 1914, for instance, declared in a bold headline, “Russia and Germany May Battle” but also provided a big headline about the upcoming Cantaloupe Day). But the Bain News Service photographs and other visual materials from the era continue to provide haunting reminders of how the war grew and spread, taking a toll on an entire generation–possibly including those water baseball-playing young men–and setting the stage for profound social and political change.

1 “Persons and Scenes in Europe’s War News Are Shown,” Sunday Oregonian August 9, 1914, http://oregonnews.uoregon.edu/lccn/sn83045782/1914-08-09/ed-1/seq-59/

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