Wednesday 26 August 2020

Book Review: Cameras at War by John Wade

 Finding a book that combines two of your, very different, interests sometimes seems too good to be true. So when I spotted that Pen and Sword Books were releasing a book titled Cameras at War I was somewhat intrigued. I have had an interest in military history for many years (as I would hope would be evident by the nature of this blog), and also as a keen photographer it seemed like a perfect match. However, I have seen books like this that can turn out to be very dry and lets face it, boring, if they simply document the subject, without any real feeling for the content.

My hopes were raised when I realised the author was John Wade, as its not long since I thoroughly enjoyed reading his The Golden Age of Science Fiction, also from Pen and Sword.

There are many books on conflict photography, usually concentrating on particular photographers, or war zones. However, this is the first book that I have seen that is squarely focused on the equipment used to capture the photographs. Starting with the earliest daguerreotype plate cameras and mobile, horse drawn, darkrooms it runs right through to the development of more modern 35mm film cameras and even spy cameras, such as the eponymous Minox range. The book also covers the development of movie cameras and various film sizes (many of which were used for both still photographs and movies).

A well as the standard photographers cameras the book looks at some of the more unusual cameras that have been produced, such as those designed specifically to be used in aerial reconnaissance. These cameras were generally too big to be hand held (at least for very long) and were often mounted in the planes and operated by remote control by the pilot. 

Also featured is the bizarre Hythe Mark III machine gun camera. This was developed as a way to teach air crew how to use a machine gun in dog fights, without actually risking other pilots lives. The machine gun camera was built to resemble a Lewis gun and was designed in such an ingenious way that the magazine became the film holder (which the pilot could swap out to change the film). Cocking the gun advanced the film in the camera, and pulling the trigger took the photo. When the pilot returned to the ground, the film was processed and the photos could be accessed to see if the range was correct and if the target was centred accurately.

There is a good examination of the range of more normal cameras that were used by both professional photographers and also carried and used by normal soldiers (obviously size and portability were important for both types, but possibly more important for the non-professionals).

As well as the major conflicts covered in this book, there is an interesting look at the cameras that were used and developed during the Cold War. These ranged from the miniature cameras that a spy could hide about their person, to cameras that were converted to fit into briefcases and handbags to allow covert photos to be taken in public places.

I can't say that I had more than a passing knowledge of the history of photography (we must have covered some of it when I was at art school, but that was 30 years ago). However, this book has covered a lot of the important historical points as it moved through the development of camera equipment used during war time.

A fascinating read that I got through in no time at all. If you are at all interested in some of the ore obscure aspects of military history, or the history of photography, I would highly recommend this book.

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