Readers of my previous posts will know that I’m pretty interested in the history of photography, particularly the first efforts of companies such as Kodak to open up photography to a mass audience. I’m also fascinated by the First World War (I’m a History teacher and do self-guided tours to the battlefields of France and Belgium.) Therefore, you can imagine my geeky excitement when I saw that a book was being published called ‘The Vest Pocket Kodak & The First World War’, by Jon Cooksey
The book looks at the story of the aforementioned Vest Pocket Kodak, or VPK as it was affectionately known. Launched shortly before the First World War, the VPK folded down to about the size of an Iphone, and was designed to be carried easily about one’s person to catch the ideal snapshot, being much less bulky than other mass market cameras such as the Box Brownie. When you were ready to take a picture, the camera folded out using a bellows, and took remarkably sharp and accurate pictures for such a small camera. One version even allowed you to open up a flap and write on the film – allowing the
photographer to ‘tag’ their pictures with details on where it was taken, date etc.
Cooksey’s book looks at how the VPK soon became the camera of choice for those soldiers travelling to France and Belgium to take part in the opening phases of the First World War. Thousands of them were tucked securely inside soldier’s pockets, allowing a greater democratization of war photography than had ever been seen before. There are many amazing photos in Cooksey’s book. One in particular I have used in many lessons on the First World War (see below).
This picture, taken by Lieutenant Robert Money on 8th September 1914, depicts men of the Middlesex Regiment under shrapnel fire on the Signy-Signets road. Taken on a VPK, in my mind it is one of the most evocative, and disturbing images of the First World War, capturing the danger of troops caught out in the open. There is a sense of immediacy and movement in the picture that is missing from many other, more staged First World War pictures. The horse and cart on the road obviously racing towards safety, the soldier on the bottom left hunched over to protect himself, and most disturbing of all, the soldier in middle who is already hit and is running for cover, his face covered in blood. Cooksey reports that this soldier was intelligence officer Alfred Sang, who sadly later died of his injuries on 2 October 1914.
For obvious reasons, by 1915 it became a court martial offence to carry and use a VPK on the battlefield, as the army tried to control the flood of unsolicited images of the horror of the Western Front. Happily for us historians, these orders were largely ignored, even by those who were meant to enforce them. Below is another action photo, taken in 1915 by Private Frederick Fyfe of the Liverpool Scottish on his VPK during the attack on Bellewarde ridge, near Ypres. The picture is remarkable for being a real picture of a First World War battle taking place, from an unprotected position. Many such pictures were either faked (witness the endlessly reused, fake sections of the ‘Battle of the Somme’ film used in virtually every WW1 documentary and many books, and often passed off as reality), or were taken so tentatively over the parapet that they mostly show sandbags and barbed wire. In this image, the eye is drawn to the bursting artillery shells in the distance, the soldiers scrambling up towards the rise on the right (the flag was used to indicate the progress of the attack to British artillery), while corpses litter the ground. It’s no wonder that pictures such as these were banned.
There are also many other, more candid photos in Cooksey’s book, such as this taken by by keen photographer Captain Colver on his VPK. Taken in May 1915, several weeks after the VPK was banned, the picture shows just how much the rules were flouted. Not only is the photographer himself risking a court martial, but second from the right is Lieutenant Colonel Charles Fox – the commanding officer of the regiment 1/5 York and Lancaster regiment.
Overall, this book was a fascinating read, with some wonderful photographs. If you are interested in photography, and the First World War, you can’t go far wrong – it’s also a beautiful little volume! Only thing is, I now want a VPK…