Academic journal article Journalism History

Creating a Photographic Record of World War I

Academic journal article Journalism History

Creating a Photographic Record of World War I

Article excerpt

"Real History" and Recuperative Memory in Stereography

This article considers how World War I was explained and memorialized in American stereography after its conclusion. Stereographs were side-by-side photographs of the same scene, which when seen through a set of lenses called a stereoscope, created a three-dimension viewing effect. The Keystone stereograph set of 300 cards, which was used in this study and was issued in 1923, provided reassuring memory in keepsake form. This study helps elucidate the role of the media in the construction of collective memory and national identity during a pivotal time in both the rise of the mass media and America's sense of its moral and political place in the world. The stereographs also show how images and text could be packaged together as "history" to tell a positive and recuperative story about what many saw as an inexplicable series of events.

In an 1859 Atlantic Monthly article, Oliver Wendell Holmes predicted: "The next European war will send us stereographs of battles. It is asserted that the bursting shell can be photographed. The time is perhaps at hand when a flash of light, as sudden and brief as that of lightning which shows a whirling wheel standing stock still, shall preserve the very instant of the shock of contact of mighty armies."1

While Holmes may not have been correct in his timeline, his anticipation of the importance and power of stereography in documenting a European conflict was correct. This article considers how World War I was explained and memorialized in American stereography after its conclusion. Stereographs were cardboard cards containing side-by-side images of the same scene, which, when seen through a set of lenses called a stereoscope, created a three-dimension viewing effect. While largely forgotten today (beyond its child's-toy legacy, the ViewMaster), stereography was a nineteenth-century mass medium that survived well into the twentieth century. Americans saw few battle images during World War I, due to the access restrictions and censorship policies of the governments on both sides of the conflict. Stereography thus had a special opportunity to tell a definitive "historical" story of this war after its close.

By the early 1 920s, this medium was dominated by the Keystone View Company of Meadville, Pennsylvania, which after the war ended in November 1918 bought the stereograph holdings of its chief competitor, New York-based Underwood and Underwood. This study is an examination of Keystone's 300-card history in 1 923 of die war, an original set of which is in Temple University's library archives.

The Keystone set was a commemorative media product, which is a form of communication that was produced, written, and packaged in a grander format than regular media products, sold over an extended period of time, and marked as a historic document. Such artifacts provide a useful lens through which to study media statements about the meaning of die past. In the case of the material examined in this study, those messages were conveyed verbally as well as visually: each of the 300 stereograph cards had textual commentary on its back side and collectively the cards' individual and cumulative lessons were explained in a book that accompanied the set.

Retrospective media contain two types of memory: "evidence" of the past, often in the form of documentary materials, such as photographs, and new statements about what "we" now realize that past meant, a voice diat suggests the audience has a shared, social understanding of die past. Maurice Halbwachs, who first articulated the dieoretical notion of collective memory during the same historic period in which this stereoscopic story was produced, compared the construction of shared ory to retouching a portrait to create a picture in which "[n]ew images overlay the old."2 From the perspective of the audience, this type of media product seems to offer the possibility that audiences can "keep" the past individually, in tangible form, while also belonging to a broader community of memory, what David Lowenthal in 1985 called "a unifying web of retrospection. …

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