Popular representations of the Great War tend to focus on the exciting stuff: Huge shells being loaded into howitzers. Soldiers hurriedly affixing gas masks to their faces when the canisters fall. Trench digging, life amongst barbed wire, and sheltering in the dugouts. Huge lines of men, marching toward the Front or running across No Man’s Land. Huge piles of bodies, awaiting burial.
But what is no so commonly popularly represented is what went on between the battles, the marches, the digging, the death – and that was day-to-day life. I addressed this in an earlier post, but want to point to one of A. O. Fasser’s works in showing a truly candid image:
Groups of men, with two about to ride out, engaged in various conversations, smoking cigarettes and pipes, and caught very candidly by Fasser in this almost from-the-hip-looking stereoview. Only two of the subjects even seem to be aware of the camera at all – the passenger of the ambulance that is ready to roll out:
And this sneaky guy, almost “photobombing” out the window of an adjacent ambulance to make sure he gets in the shot:
None of the other medics even seem aware of Fasser’s presence here, which makes sense – he was, after all, a surgeon, and likely caught this scene as he was walking past. No fancy equipment, strobes, etc – just a doctor passing and then capturing a moment in time. Two of the men either noticed the camera or knew that Fasser was wont to have one at the ready, and mugged accordingly.
This moment represents what most of 1914-1918 was like for most of the people who fought in, or assisted in, the war effort. Not heavily featured in the sets of publicly sold stereoviews were scenes of men (or women) standing about, living their lives, eating their meals, and so on. Even in the scenes meant to convey day-to-day life, there is often a sense of artificiality in many of the commercially produced images – take for example one of the views from the above-mentioned series on Manille:
On the face of it, a similar scene – except that there is the clear artificiality of the fact that it was carefully arranged by a (presumably professional) photographer, and lit with a flash bulb. Certainly, that candle hung by wire from the ceiling isn’t providing the light here! But notice how the players are holding their cards at unlikely angles – not to shield them from the other players’ view, but to expose them to the camera. And note that every figure is visible, and carefully positioned – the four players, two onlookers, and three men in the rear doing their own things. While this photograph is wonderful, it is representative of reality. Fasser’s parking lot photograph is reality. Nobody’s posed – only two people even seem aware of Fasser’s camera, but without enough time to “look cool” – and everybody’s posture is relaxed.
Nobody is looking at the camera in the Manille view at all, of course – the photographer had instructed them not to, and then likely waited until they complied to snap the shutter. But in Fasser’s work, it seems clear that, with two exceptions, nobody even knew about the photograph – including likely after it was finished, being as the camera he would have used would have had a near-silent shutter. He froze a standard moment in time, and went about his business.
The War certainly had its share of action, war-torn buildings, death, and mayhem. But, a majority of the time, it had a lot of waiting, chatting, smoking, eating, using the loo – basically, living life. And Fasser has captured that brilliantly here.