Great War 1914-1918: The Ruins of Reims

As long as there have been cameras, there have been photographers documenting ruins. The ruins of Rome and Egypt, Pompeii and Angkor Wat have all proved to be constant destinations for camera-wielding documentarians. But there are other ruins – modern ruins; buildings which fell into their sad states more recently, that are also the focus of certain photographers. I am among those photographers. So was the person behind the set of 12 glass plate 6×13 stereoscopic negatives that arrived in the post this afternoon.

This set focuses on Reims after its bombardment during the Great War, and was almost certainly taken during the War. I make the latter assertion based on two things – the equestrian statue of Joan of Arc, which was removed after the bombardment and later fire, is not present, and the rubble is far from cleared up (as it was by 1919). The post on A.O. Fasser’s set from Reims confirms some of this. And yet, we already see ruins tourism in action here – people walking about the ruins, even selling souvenir postcards outside a shoppe next to bombed out buildings. Even before the defeat of the Germans, people were visiting – and documenting – the aftereffects of the war.

Part of this, at least in terms of professional photographers, was of course propagandistic. Like the Rape of Belgium, the destruction of the Reims Cathedral energized the French against the Germans (rather than weakening their morale, as the Germans had hoped). The Cathedral in particular became symbolic of the barbarity of the German army, needlessly destroying cultural treasures to no particular end besides wanton destruction. But amateurs, such as today’s photographer, were on-scene as well, along with ruins tourists – a group of whom is pictured in the heading image, and several more of whom can be seen throughout this set.

Today’s photographer was quite talented – this set contains 12 negatives, which was a standard box size back then. Assuming that this is one entire box of plates, and not the culling of two or more, they didn’t get a single bad exposure out of the lot, and these negatives have been incredibly well preserved. The photographer had a keen eye for focusing and composing in such a way as to bring attention to the devastation without going overboard and cluttering the image – which is easy to do in these situations. Furthermore, they captured the scenes (primarily containing the Cathedral) from a variety of angles and distances, to make every shot interesting. As one modern ruins photographer appraising the work of another, over a century ago, I have to say I’m impressed. These were likely taken on the same day – the lighting doesn’t change much, and the barely-variegated clouds in the sky are consistent throughout. Given that, I’d say our photographer did a smashing job.

So without further ado, here are the (digitally rendered) positives, with no correction or spot-removal needed, in the order in which they were received:

ANAGLYPHS (click for gallery)

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