In Search of the Somme

Remember Me Co-Investigator and photographer Associate Professor Liz Nicol takes us on a personal journey behind the lens.

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Found Poppies, The Somme. 2016. Photograph copyright Liz Nicol

As a new project unfolds, where do you begin? Especially when you have vigorously avoided anything remotely connected the subject, and in this case the subject is World War One.

This blog is a reflection of the process of approaching a subject that one has actively remained apart from. The beginning of a journey. The subject of the war was raised under the larger umbrella of the research project ‘Remember Me. The Changing Face of Memorialisation’. My interest stems from a fascination with the close relationship between photography and loss.

The subject of WW1 was introduced, within the theme ‘Heroes and Loved Ones’ I found myself engaging with this subject and becoming fascinated by a world that existed beyond my comprehension, I had no direct experience of war. My father, a survivor of the Japanese prison camps of WW2, was a ‘lucky’ man avoiding death many times, his experiences remained mostly hidden, no medals or paraphernalia, he held his memories close to himself however it had great impact on our family.

On the many occasions that I have driven through France I/we had always avoided the ‘battlefields’. Why did I do this? Thinking about this for the first time I realise it was because the idea of that devastated landscape deeply disturbed me, the knowledge that so many men had died there drove me away.

As a photographer my way to begin, was through the historical nature of the cameras used during 1914 – 1918, soon to be followed by questions of how the technology of the camera impacted on the visual representation of the war. The first step was to buy a Kodak Box Brownie No. 2, I had some initial thoughts in mind, mostly around the close relationship of black and white photography and the cliché of nostalgia.

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A growing collection of WW1 cameras, Box Brownie No 2. Photograph copyright Liz Nicol.

Embedded in my working process is the idea of ‘not knowing’ so this subject was truly ideal, I planned a visit on a return journey from Italy where I had been taking photographs in a very different place; the Venetian Lagoon, a place where the ‘serenissima’ and environmental conflict coexist.

How to narrow down the field? I chose The Somme, I’m not exactly sure why but for me there was something evocative purely in the name, it pulled at my imagination.

I went equipped with two cameras. Both new to me, both technologies were available during WW1. They were rudimentary cameras, basic black boxes. The Box Brownie was a small portable camera manufactured in its thousands a medium format camera that produced negatives on roll film, the other was a large format camera (sometimes referred to as a field camera), was much less portable, it needed to be mounted on a substantial tripod and it produced large negatives on individual sheets of film10” x 8”.

There was a simple thread of an idea running through the choice of cameras it was a deliberate challenge to myself to look at an unfamiliar subject with unfamiliar equipment.

Both cameras necessitated a different way of looking, when taking a photograph with the Box Brownie you look down into the eye piece, viewing the world vaguely. With the large format camera, firstly you need to shield the ground glass (viewing screen) from reflected light with a dark cloth, as you open up the lens you begin to see the world, however the world appears back to front and upside down.

With the Box Brownie, photographs could be taken quickly and informally – composing was imprecise. The ‘large format’ camera took much more effort to set up, it was cumbersome but through the act of looking was special, what you saw on the ground glass was in great detail. I had to be very selective with this camera as I only had 10 sheets of film with me, each photograph had to count.

The two cameras employed very different ways of approaching the world; with the Box Brownie the camera became an extension of my physical self, I would position myself then take the photograph, with the large format camera the process was much more static and I was physically removed from the world around me, under the dark cloth looking at an abstraction of the world.

As we travelled towards the Western Front, we arrived at the first cemetery by chance, we simply saw it and parked up. It was Vermandovillers, one of the few German cemeteries in the area. It was early morning, the light was quite beautiful, a slight dew on the grass. We were alone, there was the sound of distant traffic, life continued all around us, as we stood among the regimented black metal crosses whilst the horror of what we were looking at began to unfold.

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Vermandovillers, contains the remains of 22,632 German soldiers. Photograph copyright Liz Nicol.

This element of chance, coming across the German cemetery first positioned me to frame and consider other cemeteries in the light of constructed national identities and characteristics.

As we travelled around the sheer scale and number of cemeteries some small others vast, together representing the incomprehensible losses of war, the lives of individuals many remembered by name only was completely daunting. This first approach embraced the subject from a position of ‘not knowing’ my return visit would be more informed.

I was constantly trying to imagine what the landscape was like before it was devastated by the actions of war. We needed a diversion and headed towards the river, it was time for a picnic, water is always a big draw for me. Navigating small roads is sometimes difficult in a camper, there were numerous dead ends, eventually we found a lovely quiet spot not quite a river, but ponds, many linked together.

There was evidence of ownership and fenced off domesticated spaces, some of these ‘garden’ spaces were manicured some with small holiday homes, a caravan or tent placed under a shady tree there was also evidence of fishing. Wandering around, I picked some poppies (collecting objects is part of my methodology) and continued taking photographs, photographs with the Box Brownie.

At the time I felt there was something special about that place and when I had processed the films and made some prints this became evident. When I looked more closely at the photograph there was a small bridge that triggered an association with the water garden paintings of Monet.

During the First World War, Monet painted a series of Weeping Willow (1916 – 1919) thought to be an homage to the French fallen soldiers. Whilst he made these paintings he was close enough to the battlefields that he could hear in the distance the sound of gunfire.

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The Weeping Willow (in the foreground, that frames the photograph) with its sweeping branches, reminiscent of a stream of tears is often used as a symbol of mourning. Photograph copyright Liz Nicol.

Not knowing becomes interesting, I have really enjoyed the limitations and qualities captured by the Box Brownie, in searching for the Somme I have found a verdant landscape, a place of leisure that is still resonant of the past. In the darkroom I have worked with the wild poppies from the Somme, they are delicate and seem to hold something of the sense or trace of loss.

My intrigue of this subject deepens, especially as I begin to read ‘The Missing of the Somme’ by Geoff Dyer (a great recommendation by a colleague on the project team) that takes me with Dyer on his beautifully articulated response to the First World War through his visit to the Somme.

Liz Nicol is Associate Professor of Photography at Plymouth University. She is currently involved in several cross-disciplinary projects and leads the Remember Me research stream ‘The Photograph as a Vehicle for Mourning and Remembering’ The starting point for contributing to the project was initially based on personal experience that has grown into questions about what the photograph can portray about memorialisation and how the visual can sit with other textual information. You can view other work by Liz Nicol on her website: http://www.liznicol.co.uk/

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