The Photos that Made No-Man’s Land

Barren landscape with barbed wire; that's how most would describe the image of No Man's Land. In this story we explore where this image comes from.

By Durham University

No Man's Land - once a forest in "Flander's Fields" (c1919) by UnknownDurham University

This is the kind of landscape we have in mind when we think of No-Man's Land. Though it is hard to explain what this place is, we can easily imagine it. How did this image become so commonplace?

Frank Hurley with one of his prints at Cartwright Hall in Bradford (1919) by George P. LewisDurham University

Spectacular Composites

Technological advances enabled photographers to create prints that combined multiple elements from different negatives into a single print. These were called composite prints. The Australian war photographer Frank Hurley mastered this practice. His images of No-Man's Land were iconic, but also caused a great deal of controversy. 

Morning at Paschendaele (12 October 1917) by Frank HurleyDurham University

For example, Hurley added dramatic sun rays that created a sublime halo over the aftermath of battle.

Because he manipulated the printing process, Hurley was blamed for corrupting the historical record of war and blurring the line between fact and fiction.

Animation: An episode after the Battle of ZonnebekeDurham University

This video shows how Hurley built the composite of one of his large prints from different fragments of individual negatives.

An episode after the Battle of Zonnebeke (1918) by Frank HurleyDurham University

Hurley's photographs were spectacular, filled with action and detail. Here, No-Man’s Land is depicted as a Picturesque ruin, like a 19th century landscape painting.

Many photos of No-Man's Land, however, bore no resemblance to these grand spectacles.

Aeroplane Graflex camera in action (1917-1918) by UnknownDurham University

Lunar Landscapes

Aerial images documented No-Man's Land throughout WWI. These photographs revealed a landscape that was foreign and confusing. It also captured the utter devastation of the war.

Aerial Photo of the Somme battlefield (1917) by Unknown French "Colonel"Durham University

These images resemble lunar landscapes. They also document no-man’s land in great detail. They record the gradual destruction of this conflicted strip of land.

In this photo, the white patches indicate sites of heavy bombing, which exposed the rocks underneath the darker soil.

Seeing the battlefield from above required new expertise and the ability to interpret the slightest details. In this French aerial photo from 1917, an entrance to a tunnel is spotted at the northern edge of No-Man’s Land.

Kodak Autographic Camera (1915-1920) by UnknownDurham University

Frontline Photos

WWI was also the first war where cameras were small and simple enough for anyone to use. The Vest Pocket Kodak camera was highly popular and widely advertised as ‘The Soldier’s Kodak’. Regular soldiers were able to document their experiences in the most intimate and harrowing moments of the war. These were perhaps the most influential images of No-Man's Land. 

No Man’s Land, Pervyse, December 1914. (December 1914) by Mairi ChisholmDurham University

This image is likely to be one of the first photographic records of no-man’s land.

It was taken by Mairi Chisholm, a Scottish nurse who set up a dressing station near the front lines in the Western Front in November 1914.

This photo is not overly-dramatic as many of Hurley’s large composite were. Despite the barren landscapes that these photos captured, they are extremely important. They illustrate the intimate experience of those stationed on the verge of No-Man’s Land.

Irene ‘Winkie’ Gartside-Spaight in No Man’s Land (1916) by Mairi ChisholmDurham University

Most photographs of No-Man’s Land had little or no military significance. Those on the front line with access to cameras, simply took photographs as mementos. They documented themselves, their comrades and the horrors of the landscape they witnessed.

This photo was taken by Mairi Chisholm, capturing her friend, Irene ‘Winkie’ Gartside-Spaight in No Man’s Land.

Mairi Chisholm's Photo Album (1914) by Mairi ChisholmDurham University

Out of the millions of No-Man’s Land photographs, only a handful made it to the public eye. Most remain tucked in dusty attics and upper shelves.

Old family albums are probably to the most common archive of these photographs, like this one put together by Mairi Chisholm after the war. The image of no man’s land, with it’s barren and bleak landscape, was placed unceremoniously between a photo of a stern-looking François Jayman, and a photo of Mairi with her friend and fellow frontline nurse, Elsie Knocker.

Even with the war around them, both women are smiling.

Carretera de Fortuna, Murcia, Spain (2011-2013) by Mishka HennerDurham University

Images of the Present

No-man's land continues to appear in the work of contemporary photographers. New technologies have emerged to document our world. Google Street View, for example, provides interactive panoramas across the globe. It also helps us see no-man's land in new light, and understand some of the challenges it entails. This photo is part of an artwork by the artist Mishka Henner, who uses Street View footage to document landscapes on the margins of cities and women pushed to the edge of society.  

SS98, Cerignola Foggia, Italy (2011-2013) by Mishka HennerDurham University

In an interview, Henner explained that these photographs are unusual. The Street View camera operates automatically, and in that sense, there is no photographer. Nevertheless, the social hardships and landscapes they capture are extremely important.

"Aesthetically," he said, "what drew me was this lush green landscape punctuated by these women and trash everywhere. Discarded trash, discarded lives."

Credits: Story

Portraits of No Man's Land

Written by: Noam Leshem

Additional Research: Emanne Saleh

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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