Refocusing Perspectives - Then and Now Photography of the First World War

A research partnership between the University of Exeter and the Royal Photographic Society (RPS), our ‘Refocusing Perspectives’ project is exploring the use of ‘Then and Now’ comparative photography within a First World War context. Professor David Harvey and Dr James Wallis (Exeter) are working alongside a team of participant volunteers - drawn from the Special Interest Groups within the RPS - to co-investigate a variety of local, national and international case studies.

‘Then and Now’ Photography click image to view in full
29-05-2017 # : Eastbourne Then and Now Merged

"Then & Now on the site of Camp Summerdown Heritage"
@ Alan Graham LRPS & Courtesy of Eastbourne Heritage

Photography acts as a medium that links people, their surroundings and the past.

Photography and the First World War remain inherently intertwined, with perhaps its most iconic images being of the Battle of Passchendaele, the centenary of which will take place later this year. Within the context of the conflict now being out of living memory, place and landscape stand as a crucial witness to what happened.

‘Then and Now’ First World War photography has been used at various intervals over the last one hundred years. It was first adopted during the conflict itself, with printed postcards offering a visual depiction of the destruction wrought upon the landscapes of France and Belgium. During the 1920s and 1930s, numerous series of illustrated publications that featured the ‘Then and Now’ principle were published – designed to reveal to veterans how the battlefields had changed twenty years on, amid ongoing reconstruction efforts (‘Twenty Years After’, edited by Sir Ernest Swinton; ‘The Great War: I Was There’, edited by Sir John Hammerton). During the 1960s, the Imperial War Museum held a four year long series of Special Photographic Exhibitions. These matched up official wartime photographs from their collections with images of exactly the same spot fifty years later (produced by Sir Peter Masefield). Simultaneously revealing change in tandem with what was once there, ‘Then and Now’ endures today through an array of publications and digital features – a seemingly timeless principle within visual culture.

Project Aims

Our project is utilizing a model of ‘co-production’ to bring together practitioners and academics for the purposes of collaborative research. All involved have an opportunity to both co-investigate and create new photographic representations of First World War spaces, ranging from the prominent to the nigh-on forgotten. All have been advocated by our participants, and designated within three distinctive strands:

• Battlefield Landscapes
• Home Front
• Hidden History

Project Progress

We held our first project workshop in March 2017, in London. This showcased ‘Then and Now’ themed presentations from Andrew Tatham and Simon Gregor; see links to their respective projects ‘A Group Photograph: Before, After and In-between’ and ‘The Remembrance Image Project’.

As the project takes shape, we are targeting the bringing together of initial research findings over the summer. Over its duration, our community-participatory interrogation will help us to understand how photographic practice can make living connections between the First World War and its continued commemoration.