A mystery photo. Last week Bethan Holdridge who works for the Museums service in Norwich invited me to have a look through her Great Grandfather – Oliver Isaac Brown’s collection of photos. He was a Suffolk man but lived in Great Yarmouth. A sapper in the Royal Engineers, No. 19753. And it would appear that he had a camera with him and recorded various aspects of the front.

The collection has been recently digitised by Norfolk Record Office and added to NROcat. It comprises of about 160 prints of the Western Front, mostly from the Somme with a few from around Ypres, they vary quite dramatically. The collection includes, prisoners of war, various bits of front line trench, aircraft, artillery, injured men and nurses, even Asquith’s visit to the front. Also, quite unusually for the time, some pictures of both the dead and men being interred, both subjects were frowned upon for various reasons – in particular the effect on both morale and recruitment. Having a camera unless you were an official photographer was also something that was not officially sanctioned. Some of the photos are annotated, some aren’t and most date from 1916.

Oddly it also contains a number of photos recognisable as by both Ernest Brooks and John Warwick Brook, and there is a question as to whether some of these are in fact out-takes from their work, the similarities between these and others by them are strange and could probably do with some researching. It is quite an astonishing assemblage to flick through and hopefully will see the light of day soon for all to marvel at.

This photo is titled ‘Sept 1916 troops returning for a rest at Albert’. It is to me the most curious photo in the batch, I’ve stared at a lot of photos of the Great War over the years, trying to drag extra meaning out of them, to work things out, the why and the where and the who and the how. I’ve not seen this before anywhere, or any like it. There are a couple of reasons why it’s so intriguing. It says Brooks too me, he liked silhouette and theatre, this has a bit of both. The sky is a really strange piece of treatment, whoever shot the photo was aware of the drama in the humid air and has tried to add some in by manually burning it back in from the negative when enlarging it. Dodging and burning are processes we still use today in both darkrooms and in Software like Lightroom and Photoshop, it adds detail and tonality back into burnt out or filled in areas of a photograph, now it is a simple click of a button and the waggling of a mouse-pointer. In a darkroom, it’s hands and fingers or bits of card under an enlarger under red light, trial and error with no undo to get one print. You can see the effect in the photo by the way the buildings have a white halo, and the darkening of both The Leaning Madonna and the wall above the sign. Someone has taken a bit of time to try and get the sky to work. Pulling out the latticework of telegraph wires strung above the soldier’s heads. The soldiers form an almost classical tableau, the shapes of the composition, the divisions of tone, it is almost beautiful in a funny way, it feels like a rarity in the current odd miasma of commemoration, it’s somehow different.

And what of the subjects? we can only guess, some survived, returning home with a head full of it, others will be on the memorials or in the cemeteries here and there along the front. The town of Albert fell and the Madonna with it, and the war ended and the shattered place was rebuilt, and whoever took the photo, be it Bethan’s great-grandfather Oliver, or another photographer, stood roughly where you can stand below using the technology to put yourself where those tired men marched nearly 100 years ago.