Documenting World War I: Women Photographers on the Front Lines

In 2017 we highlighted the work of female photojournalists Helen Johns Kirtland and Toni Frissel. During World War I Kirtland, one of many photographers putting faces and places to “the war to end all wars,” did photographic work for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and other periodicals as well as the Red Cross and United States Army and Navy.

Learn more about the work of photographers in World War I in this video featuring Reference Librarian Jonathan Eaker from the Prints and Photographs Division at the Library of Congress.

For more World War I resources, download the Teaching World War I with Primary Sources Idea Book for Educators from HISTORY.

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Women Documenting History: Primary Sources from the Library of Congress on Women Photojournalists

You and your students may know the names of Margaret Bourke-White, Dorothea Lange, or Clare Boothe Luce. Fewer, however, will know the names of the photographers Helen Johns Kirtland or Toni Frissell, who documented wars, often from the front lines.

Helen Johns Kirtland, 1919

Helen Johns Kirtland, 1919

Toni Frissell, sitting, holding camera on her lap, with several children standing around her, somewhere in Europe, 1945

Toni Frissell, sitting, holding camera on her lap, with several children standing around her, somewhere in Europe, 1945

During World War I, Helen Johns Kirtland, a photojournalist with Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, often traveled with the YMCA, which provided physical fitness classes for the troops. With the YMCA staff, Kirtland was able to spend time with the soldiers in the trenches learning and photographing their experiences. In addition to being a skilled photographer, Kirtland’s essays for Leslie’s were simple and elegant, bringing the battlefield to readers’ homes.

Toni Frissell may be best known for her work as a fashion photographer and for her photographs of the wedding of John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Bouvier. However, she also worked as a photographer during World War II. She donated her services to the American Red Cross, Women’s Army Corps, and Eighth Army Air Force, and her photographs included images of women soldiers, African American fighter pilots, and children orphaned by war.

A Woman on the Battle Front. Helen Jones Kirkland, 1918

A Woman on the Battle Front. Helen Johns Kirtland, 1918

U.S. soldiers resting among ruins of building, with soldier lying on plank in foreground, on the Siegfried Line, Rhone Valley, German Front. Toni Frissell, 1945

U.S. soldiers resting among ruins of building, with soldier lying on plank in foreground, on the Siegfried Line, Rhone Valley, German Front. Toni Frissell, 1945

Think about it:

  • Study selections of work by Kirtland and Frissell. What similarities and differences do you see in each photojournalist’s work?
  • What aspects of each photographer’s work can be controlled by the photographer and which are out of the photographer’s control? Choose a photograph you like and think about how this affects how you respond to the photographs.
  • Kirtland was married to another photojournalist and they often traveled together. How do you think having a partner helped or hindered her work?
  • Compare the work of these photojournalists to the work of those covering current conflicts. Beyond the use of color or black and white film, what differences and similarities do you see? Whose work would you like to see in a book or newspaper and why?
  • If you were a war photographer, what aspects of war would you want to cover? What do you think readers would want to see?

Want to learn more about woman war correspondents? Explore Women Come to the Front for biographies and see some of the work of these and other photojournalists. Want to learn about other women photojournalists? Explore the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division to see some of their collections.

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