Happy Anniversary: My Top 10 Great War Stereoviews from Brentano’s

Happy Anniversary @ Brooklyn Stereography!

Exactly one year ago, I made my first post on Brooklyn Stereography. And what a long, strange trip it’s been! Despite having gone on hiatus for over four months while I was ill, our audience has continued to expand. Yesterday alone, more visitors from South America viewed the site than total visitors in the first month, and I’d call that a success! Therefore, I thought I’d do something fun to celebrate – another top 10 list, much like the one I did on my own birthday. And the subject of this list? Glass slides from my own collection exclusively, from one particular (and particularly difficult) manufacturer: Brentano’s.

Brentano’s: A Love/Hate Relationship

What I hate about Brentano’s stereoviews

Whereas LSU (La Stéréoscopie Universelle – the other major manufacturer of Great War glass stereoviews) at least used consistent negative numbers on their slides, Brentano’s didn’t. Numbers on Brentano’s slides might indicate an overall index number – or a number within a particular set. They basically mean next to nothing. And while LSU had variations in their captions, Brentano’s captions varied wildly – when they bothered with captions. And they didn’t always bother. In the majority of cases, particular battles, dates, subjects, and so on are totally obscure. We’ll be seeing a lot of this today.

So basically, unless you’re insane, you can sit and enjoy your Brentano’s slides through your viewer of choice, but you oughtn’t even try to catalogue them. Fortunately, my friend Doug is insane in a heroic sort of way. He’s begun a catalogue of the Brentano’s in the Jordan/Ference Collection so that something resembling a way to order these slides exists. This will be a Herculean effort – and I’m putting my money on Doug coming up Hercules rather than Sisyphus at the end of the day.

Me, I’ve been keeping my Brentano’s slides safely in their boxes, where I don’t have to concern myself with such challenges. There’s a reason LSU features on this blog with much more regularity. But in order to help in Doug’s efforts, I’ve been scanning my Brentano’s to add to his collection. And doing this has led me to fall in love with a lot of these slides all over again. Sounds like a Hollywood picture, no?

What I love about Brentano’s stereoviews

My own existential dread about owning collections that are near-unclassifiable aside, Brentano’s has some excellent stuff! First of all, they have a much wider range of subjects than do LSU. American troops, German trenches (presumably acquired after the war), and pre- and post- war slides are far more common here. LSU doesn’t have President Wilson visiting Belgium. Brentano’s does.

Additionally, there’s more topical and technical variation with Brentano’s. While not much is known about the company, it’s obvious that they released slides from many stereographers. And the topics – and skill levels – of these stereographers varied wildly. The result is that there’s a real mix here – plenty of camera-aware soldiers guarding an outpost at the Vosges, next to a group of unaware men playing cards in a dugout. One almost gets the idea that the LSU slides were created by, and for, soldiers. With Brentano’s, it’s almost as if these were just culled from people from all different backgrounds, photographically and otherwise.

Finally, the treatment of the Central Powers is a little more respectful with Brentano’s. While some slides certainly use Boches for Germans, far more use Allemandes. French and German soldiers are almost universally given equal treatment in death, which makes sense. In death, all dead soldiers are fellows – corpses don’t have allegiances. I rather like that about Brentano’s.

Brentano’s: My Top Ten from My Collection

Most of the Brentano’s so-far displayed on Brooklyn Stereography have been scans from the Jordan/Ference Collection. However, having hundreds of these myself, I challenged myself to pick my top ten from these. Thus, these might not be my 10 favorite images from the company – but they’re the 10 best that I personally have acquired. And that reminds me of one thing to love about these – they’re not as sought-after by collectors. I’ve rarely bid against someone when bidding on them; when I have, the most I’ve paid for a single slide was under €5 – and that for a very nice copy of the slide that wound up as #1 on today’s list. As always with Top Ten lists, this represents my feelings today on my Brentano’s acquisitions that have been scanned as of this particular day. Tomorrow, I might have created a completely different list.

10) [Renault] tank in action towards Reims

A Brentano's stereoview of a Renault tank climbing upwards

There are lots of tank stereoviews out there because tanks are objectively cool. If you’re into military history, you love looking at tanks. Even if you’re not into military action, you probably enjoy seeing tanks – especially in 3D. Renaults are doubtless the coolest looking tanks from the war, perhaps with a little competition from the A7V. The British Mark II’s and Mark IV’s were the most populous tank, but they weren’t this pretty.

Most slides of Renaults by all manufacturers feature columns of the tank on the move. But in the majority of these, the tanks aren’t straight tankin’ – they’re just driving across a field, or down a road, or through a village. But this Brentano’s view shows a tank straight tankin’. You couldn’t replace this tank with a lorry, a bicycle, a horse-drawn cart, or anything else. Here’s a tank being a tank, and doing some serious terrain-passing. And the stereography is perfectly subtle – it adds to the shot without dominating it.

9) Vosges – Explosion of munitions

A Brentano's stereoview of a massive, billowing cloud of smoke

It seems doubtful that most people close enough to feel an explosion of this magnitude would have the initial thought: “Let’s load up a glass plate and make a stereoview!” But assuming this stereoview’s maker didn’t have their camera ready to roll, and that this wasn’t a planned blast, this is exactly what happened. I can relate to this; upon finding human remains at an abandoned insane asylum, my first instinct was to get a good shot. My traveling companions were horrified; they wanted to tell the authorities. And we weren’t even in mortal danger (or any danger whatsoever, excepting the usual abandoned building hazards).

Not only did it take guts to capture this so close to the blast site, it took technical skill to pull it off. The plate had to be loaded, the camera’s setting adjusted, and the shot composed – all before the cloud dispersed. And it looks great! While most of these explosion shots are underwhelming (due either to distance or to poor exposure), this cloud was captured wonderfully. There is a tonal richness to this Brentano’s slide that’s hard to match – even by more prestigious outfits like LSU.

8) Somme 1916 – Operation on wounded Boche

A Brentano's stereoview of a German soldier receiving bandaging to a head wound

Let’s look at the stereographer’s treatment of the subject here. Rather than calling out to the men in order for them to address the camera, it’s quite candid. Unconventionally, this image uses depth of field as well as stereo depth to focus on the near figures. With the barbed wire – the only object in negative parallax – separating us from the scene, we are explicitly voyeurs here. And with their blur, the soldiers behind are also removed – more and more as they are physically removed. This is just technically excellent, as well as being incredibly humanizing. Note the teacup in the hand of the German receiving bandages, and the focus of the men.

7) French plane shot down

A Brentano's stereoview of a downed French plane

While there are quite a few French stereoviews of downed German aircraft, a scene like this is less common. Even less common is the lack of a crowd around the plane, presumably shot down behind French lines. Add to that the corpse of the pilot, as yet unmoved, and this is rather a unique scene. Adding to this, it is in excellent condition and technically wonderful. The tonal range here is perfect, and the stereography is top-notch. My guess would be that this came from one of the more professional contributors to Brentano’s negative stock.

6) Manille in the dugout

A Brentano's stereoview of a group of men playing cards in a dugout

As with #6 in this list, this is a great candid shot, showing how soldiers spent their time when not soldiering. You’ve probably seen it before – either in the eponymous article, or in my birthday post to myself. But you haven’t seen it like this – the tonality is different; it lacks the red tone of the other version. It’s also printed correctly. The previous version displayed was printed backwards – you can tell from the cards, the newspaper the soldier at top-left is reading, and the unit insignia worn by the soldiers. This version also utilizes more of the original negative – examine the backpack in the far foreground. However, the version from the Jordan/Ference Collection proves richer in both graded tonality and its sienna tint. In any case, a wonderful candid of dugout life.

5) Gas alert with the Klaxon

A Brentano's stereoview of a man in a gas mask poking out of a dugout, operating a huge hand-cranked klaxon horn

So if you like First World War images at all, you should love this Brentano’s stereoview. It’s pretty much got it all – a soldier in a gas mask popping out of a sandbag-fortified dugout. The soldier holds his left hand up, either generally raising an alert, or signaling someone in particular. With his right hand, he turns the crank on some serious 1914-1918 tech: a huge hand-cranked Klaxon horn. (Yes, Klaxon was originally a trademarked name.) This shot is just epic, and the stereography straight-up rocks. Despite the chipped corners on the right, this makes the bottom half of the Brentano’s list for me.

4) Boche assault on Bezonvaux near Verdun

A Brentano's stereoview of what appear to be siege ladders placed against a masonry wall, with soldiers climbing

No, this isn’t a recreation of a Medieval painting of invaders using siege ladders to storm a castle. This was the actual method employed in the capture of the now-uninhabitable town of Bezonvaux in 1916. And apart from one major flaw, the stereography is excellent here. The flaw is major. If you haven’t noticed it yet, free-view the image – yep, there’s foliage inches from the camera, to the point that nobody could not find it distracting. Nevertheless, this is just awesome, and I haven’t even seen any still images like this – let alone other stereoviews. So I can see why Brentano’s didn’t worry about the flaw. This is a joy through the stereoscope, and it’s not bad on the computer screen either.

3) Verdun 1916 – German corpse

A Brentano's stereoview of a dead German soldier

It would be easy enough for me to put together an hour-long slideshow called “corpses from the Great War”. There are a lot of morbid stereoviews out there; it’s perfectly natural to meditate on death in the bloodiest conflict in the Western world so far. It’s hard not to find every corpse image affecting in some way; these were men, after all, who died for their country – whether or not they had any interest in doing so. So good on the captioner for choosing the abbreviated form of “German”, instead of Boche, which is more or less a Great War equivalent to Kraut.

But of all corpse stereoviews, this one is among the most powerful because of its makeup. Instead of one of the many mass-graves, lines of bodies, or groups of soldiers, it is a single fallen German combatant. He’s face-up – not facing the camera, but he would be facing the sky if he still had a face. His face isn’t completely blown-off, but enough is that upon first glance he looks almost skeletal:

Detail from the above Brentano's view

This image serves to remind the viewer of the horror of war, whilst simultaneously showing (too late) respect for the soldier. The helmet, blown clear off his head, rest a few feet away. While his pose is almost Christlike, one doesn’t get the feeling that the stereographer who supplied the image to Brentano’s arranged this scene at all – it feels authentic. And the angle chosen emphasizes the notion that whether you fell as a Frenchman or as a German, you became another piece of human wreckage in the “war to end all wars”. This is among my favorite corpse images of all-time.

2) Champagne – Cimetière du Mesnil

A Brentano's stereoview of a cemetery, featuring a sea of wooden crosses surrounding a large, monumental cross

Yeah, we’ve been over this one before. (Spoiler – next one too.) It featured in my Remembrance Day post, featuring 100 images for 100 years. It also featured in my last top ten. This is the first time posting it in full, though, since I chopped the middle out for the former. I think my words from the latter still ring true:

…of all my Great War stereoviews featuring battlefield cemeteries and monuments, this is my favorite. Interestingly, it was also among the first I ever obtained, and I’ve never seen it elsewhere. There are many things to love about this sombre image – the makeshift wooden crosses made permanent by the addition of wreaths and offerings. The permanent monument at the center. The overcast skies, subtly dark enough to indicate a gloomy day, but not dark enough for drama. It’s the perfect stereoview to represent the deaths of millions on the fields of despair that were 1914-1918.

This Brentano’s cemetery view is just fantastic. Unlike most of the “wooden cross war cemetery” images out there, some of the names are clearly visible, as is the year: 1915. But some are chopped off – which highlights the impermanence of memory along with the wood of the crosses themselves. Then, at center, the monument to all of them – which is presumably still there, although I’ve yet to locate a recent picture of it. I love this shot, and it was in the first accession of Brentano’s slides that I ever received!

1) Drudgery of Essence

A Brentano's stereoview of a number of grizzled French soldiers, addressing the camera, the leader of which has a cigarette hanging casually from his mouth

Said it before, will likely say it again: these guys are The Grizzled, and I’ll swear up and down that Tignous saw this stereoview before designing the art for the game. And in direct opposition to the slide above, this comes from my most recent Brentano’s accession! I’ve been after this slide for ages, since I first saw it in the Jordan/Ference Collection. And now that I have one – which I like a good deal better – I can definitively say that this is my favorite Brentano’s slide (from my own collection, at least), and easily would make my Top Ten Great War stereoviews overall.

While I generally prefer candid works to works where the subject addresses the camera, I love the way in which this ragtag crew of Hairies addresses this stereographer. There is a wonderful medley of defiance, tiredness, stalwartness, stoicism, and resignedness in the eyes of these men. But above all else, there is an air of “we will carry on”, of “whatever it takes”. This is an attitude that the French and Belgians – and soon, the British, and much later, the Americans – had to adopt in order to survive. I wonder, if I were a young man in 1914, which of these men would I be? The leader, defiant, with one hand holding a pail, and the other thrust into his pocket, with a cigarette hanging casualty from his mouth? The pensive man at far-right (only visible in the left frame)? Some amalgam of all of them?

The Everyman in the Great War

What I love about this stereoview – and about scenes like “Manille in the dugout” above, and the scenes of men picking lice, etc – is that they’re representative of the true experiences of the men who went out to fight, many never expecting to return. I love views like this. They might not have been commercially viable – look at all the tanks, biplanes, zeppelins, observation balloons, large artillery, leaders, and so on which populate most commercial collections of stereography from the War.

Then consider this: to truly represent the war, we’d need a really large stereography box. For every image of a tank, there should be 1,000 images of men playing cards in some dank dugout. For every beautiful stereoview of a zeppelin flying, there should be 100,000 stereoviews of nameless corpses in the middle of nameless fields, or their bodies caught on the wires in No Man’s Land. A scene of Ferdinand Foch? A million scenes of men digging trenches. And for every charge across the field, a hundred trudges through the mud, with (sadly) only a couple changes of socks in the meanwhile.

“Drudgery of Essence” is the perfect name for this slide, as both are representative of the day-to-day life of the soldier. It wasn’t all zeppelins and gas attacks and Albrecht Mortars. It was mostly digging and maintaining trenches, trying to keep dry and free of lice, doing the daily chores. It’s hard to represent that stereographically, but it can be done – as proven above.


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