Desktop version

Home arrow History

  • Increase font
  • Decrease font

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Repositories of Meaning

The earlier pages of this chapter have illustrated how institutions like the CWRO produced photographs, circulated them through print in exhibition media, and how they were consumed by members of the public and critics. Deborah Poole’s (1997) idea of a ‘visual economy’, the meaningful networks of production and circulation in which visual objects and photographs especially operate, is a useful idea for assessing the significance of the project of depicting colonial soldiers during the First World War. Producers like Lord Beaverbrook would have no knowledge of such an idea but understood and capitalized on what it produced—complex networks of circulation which took ideas and communicated them to audiences while also constructing broader meanings such as the idea of Canadian and Anzac heroism and actions as ‘specialist’ troops during the war.

The idea of visual economy does not just relate to the immediate life of an image after it has been produced and circulated initially; instead it allows us to consider how images are stored and used, and their meanings developed over time. To an extent, individuals like Lord Beaverbrook had an awareness of this too; the photographs of the CWRO were meant to stand as memorial to and fund the memorialization of Canadian actions during the war. As a result, as Tim Cook has argued, ‘[t]he conscious moulding of memory and laying of a historical foundation by Lord Beaverbrook has had an enduring legacy on Canadian historiography since the guns fell silent on 11th November 1918’ (Cook 2006). It is also possible the Office took action to create a meaningful visual economy in other ways, possibly seen in the Office’s decision to copyright these photographs under Colonial Copyright Law.

The series of photographs were deposited as two records, copyright numbers 36262 and 37315, and as a result constitute by far the single largest deposit made to the collection. It is probable that the Office used a British imperial law in order to support the aims of the Office, protect its financial investment, and institutionally preserve a further record of the contribution made by Canadian soldiers to the First World War. Colonial Copyright Law was something of a failure from the perspective of London collections.7 However, it was used and appreciated by photographers in Canada and the Office’s use of the law is perhaps the prime example of this reversal of fortunes. In The Imperial Archive, Thomas Richardson (1993) elaborates on how collections such as the British Museum were envisaged as a huge repository of knowledge, a way of keeping territories under the control of the British government by having them known and understood through the contents of the Archive. Understanding Colonial Copyright Law as operating in such a way allows us to understand how Lord Beaverbrook and the Colonial War Records Office subverted the desire to control knowledge of Canada by using this legislation to archive and preserve an idea of Canadianness that they had spent years visually creating. In short, we have a group, with strong, nationalistic ties to the metropole and London, reusing an imperial law designed to facilitate oversight, as a means to promote a favourable perspective on the efforts of Canadians fighting to protect the bonds of empire.

While no other attempts were made on the scale of the CWRO the other materials discussed here operate in the same way, collection items that preserve the attempt to create particular meanings and mythologies around troops from Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. However, visual economies are complex and flexible; the act of communication and archiving do not allow meanings to be fixed but instead create conditions under which they change through time. As many have noted,8 flexibility of meaning is inherent to the photograph and so it is inevitable that repositories of imagery from the First World War, such as the British Library, act as an opportunity to shift the meaning of these representations and, perhaps, re-present their contents. Undertakings such as Euro-peana 1914-1918 only escalate the potential for the recirculation and re-illustration of such meaning-making images.

What was originally intended as a collection of publications and, most importantly, images, created and arranged so as to found nationalistic myths and build an idea of the actions of white colonial troops now becomes an opportunity to look at this process of meaning making critically. By considering these works alongside others which have been arrayed around them by the processes of colonial law, the drive to collect, and the twentieth-century impulse to digitize, we begin to see the meaningful presences, absences, and nuances in this photographic record. The picture created by this wider framing of the images discussed here and their context is one that shows a culture of image production, meaning making, myth creation, and racial structuring which should affect how we understand the First World War and post-colonial ceremonies of commemoration in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. Through this re-illustration it is important to perceive the war and its imagery not as a place where ideas of white nationhood were created but one where various nations and peoples fought under one banner for an empire in which not all soldiers were treated and represented equally.

This chapter has aimed to show that the visual commemoration of the actions of troops from Dominion nations was an international action. Australia, Canada, and New Zealand drew inspiration from the techniques each deployed and set a tone for this style of public promotion and subsequent memorialization. This has had a lasting impact on our historic memory of who fought the war and how, especially through the installation of an idea that the war was won by the actions of white, masculine figures on the front line. However, how these images have been archived and made available in the twenty-first century has opened the door to reconsider these images.

The wider collection of which the CWRO photographs are now part of is a series of intriguing happenstances, multiple meanings, and complex attempts to use copyright for the benefit of the photographer and publisher (Hatfield 2018). As shown in this chapter, CWRO collection is an exemplar of this as the works produced by its officers were put to various uses during the First World War and throughout its commemoration. They in particular have had a tangible impact on articulating not just how Canadian troops are remembered but how other white, colonial troops involved in the war are memorialized.

An important part of this process of memory making is how these images circulated. At the time they became part of magazines, exhibitions, and various other formats of dissemination; this was significant and set a template for how the actions of soldiers were communicated in future conflicts. What is often overlooked is the afterlife of these images, where they were stored, and the archival life of the photograph. This chapter has suggested that the submission of the CWRO photographs for copyright deposit was not just an administrative act of copyright protection but a deliberate attempt to archive the collection at the Heart of Empire.

While, in a UK context, these photographs have been relatively underused since they were deposited, they have now become part of the First World War’s centenary. Digitized as part of the Europeana 1914-1918 project, the photographs are now part of commemorating the war and critically reflecting on the actions of troops, nations, and the politics of commemoration. This process reminds us that the act of meaning making through photography is always a work in progress, the exact meaning and interpretation of a photograph always being up for debate and changed by different means of use and, importantly, the archival contexts that the photographs find themselves in. With this in mind it is important that we continue to work to understand how photographic representations of the war were created and stored for the future so that we may, in turn, begin to deconstruct and nuance our own imagination and memorialization of a conflict supported by a greater diversity of persons than the remembered figures of heroic white men.

<<   CONTENTS   >>

Related topics