Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
Autographic Vest Pocket Kodak Camera

Kodak Vest Pocket Autographic Camera
about 1918. This very popular pocket camera was marketed as 'the soldier's camera'.
© Redbridge Museum/Information & Heritage

ENQUIRIES: 

  • Read what Victoria Lucas, participating artist for National Memory – Local Stories, has to say about the significance of this camera. How much do you agree or disagree with her statement – 'the camera therefore was a machine that brought hope' – and why?

  • Why do you think photography was forbidden in the trenches?

  • How might the limitations of film and camera technology affect the kinds of pictures taken? What kind of conditions might the camera have to withstand? How and why did the Kodak Vest Pocket Camera change that?

How did this 'must have gadget' of the day provide us with valuable evidence of the war?

Advertised as the 'soldier's camera', the Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak, was a best seller during the First World War. It facilitated many unofficial images of the war – visual evidence that was often in marked contrast to the official reporting of events.

Soldiers of all nationalities took these cameras to war, with the aim of recording what they thought would be a great adventure. Few were prepared for what they were about to witness.

Before 1916, all photography in the trenches was forbidden by the military authorities, but this model – small enough to be secreted in a vest (i.e. jacket) pocket – could be smuggled in, and used, without attracting attention.

After 1916, when the official film 'Battle of the Somme' was screened in British cinemas and seen by audiences of twenty million people  –  there was little point in forbidding cameras at the Front. The film exposed the horrific reality of the trenches, masked, up till then, by censorship and propaganda.

Unofficial images of the war – seen from the perspective of the men who fought it – along with their diaries and memoirs, provide us with some of the most valuable historical evidence about their daily lives. Such photographs have also shaped our understanding of key events, such as the so-called 'Christmas Truce' of 1914, and the realities of trench warfare. Photographic portraits provide additional, and alternative information to the official painted portraits of the leaders of the war.

Versions of this popular camera were produced by other companies. Unlike today's digital camera with its instant and infinite possibilities, the Vest Camera used photographic film, with only eight black and white shots per roll. Film was expensive and difficult to obtain, and involved a lengthy developing and printing process. Taking a camera like this to war certainly required commitment.

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • What did the men photograph? And how was this different to official photographs?

    British Library: First World War Photography

  •   What can photographs tell us about the war that paintings can't? Is one more useful than the other?

  • War provided new opportunities for skilled professional photographers, such as Olive Edis. Find out about her career as an official war photographer. How unusual was this for a woman? What restrictions did she work under? Where did she work, and why was she significant? How was the camera she used different to the Vest Camera and why?

  • Taking 'selfies' and recording personal experiences via social media, or using Photoshop as a form of censoring or doctoring of images, are all very common today. People who are not journalists often photograph incidents in areas of conflict and post them on Twitter. These images may tell a story that is different to official news reportage. How will this affect the way we view history in the future? How similar, and how different is this from the impact of the Kodak Vest Pocket Camera during the First World War?

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