Outbreak of the war
End of the war

World War photography between traditional pictorial conventions and the Modern

In the First World War, visual representation developed into its own dimension of the war. Photography and film became the leading media for representing the war and determined society's perception of it.

It was only in the course of the First World War that photography became the leading medium for war reporting. Previously, war illustrators and battle painters gave visual expression to the events of the war. As photography became a mass medium, a visual canon was created that suggested authenticity and objectivity. War photographs appeared in newspapers and magazines, were printed on postcards and presented to the public in exhibitions and on display panels.

However, the representational patterns of the photography of the industrialised war remained largely conventional and bound by the iconographic traditions of the 19th century. One characteristic element was the need to show the war from its heroic site. This applies in particular to the official pictorial reporting and the photos that were taken shortly after the start of the war. The recruits had themselves photographed in heroic poses in photo studios, and the images show confusingly similar portraits of the heroes-to-be, men in uniform standing in front of their parents' homes, ready to leave, posing alone in front of wide expanses or places of entertainment in which leave was being taken. Other illustrations show the soldiers as travellers and hikers, taking up tourist traditions or in the tradition of military genre painting and family photography.

Equally conventional are the pictures that recorded the optimism of the first days and weeks of the war. Their content repeats itself, showing streets full of soldiers marching to war, flanked by cheering masses, and speak of the heroism of victorious times. Official war photographers in particular continued the tradition of war painting – they produced dramatic pictures depicting the people, the dynasty and the war as a single entity. Private photographers took photos that departed from this pictorial canon, taking photographs beyond the established taboos and with different representational patterns.

At the same time, however, the war could not be pictured like preceding wars – it lacked spatial limits and did not abide by the demarcation lines of the battlefield. For this purpose, it was necessary to find new forms of documentation, and the new developments in photography provided previously unknown opportunities for doing so. The introduction of small roll film cameras and short exposure times made snapshots possible. Clouds of gunpowder and explosions, rapid movement and exciting battle scenes recorded on photographic paper showed dramatic moments of individual fates. At the same time, however, the photographic perspectives recalled the condensed motifs of modern battle paintings. In this respect, the iconographic tradition, expanded in its possibilities by technical developments, was all the more continued by world war photography.

Translation: David Wright


Holzer, Anton: „Üb Aug‘ und Hand fürs Vaterland!“ Österreichische Kriegsfotografie im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Vocelka, Karl u.a. (Hrsg.): Geschichte in Bildern? Wiener Zeitschrift zur Geschichte der Neuzeit (2006), 2, 87-98

Hüppauf, Bernd: Fotografie im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Spilker, Rolf/Ulrich, Bernd (Hrsg.): Der Tod als Maschinist. Der industrialisierte Krieg 1914–1918. Eine Ausstellung des Museums Industriekultur Osnabrücl im Rahmen des Jubiläums „350 Jahre Westfälischer Friede“ 17.Mai–23.August 1998, Osnabrück 1998, 108-123

Hüppauf, Bernd: Kriegsfotografie, in: Michalka, Wolfgang (Hrsg.): Der Erste Weltkrieg. Wirkung, Wahrnehmung, Analyse, München/Zürich 1994, 875-910

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Guiding the masses

    Guiding the mood of the masses was an important aspect of warfare during the First World War. Considerable information and communication work was carried out to persuade the population of the “true facts”. All areas of life were influenced by propaganda in a way that had not been seen hitherto: reports in the newspapers, posters on the walls, even teaching material in schools now communicated controlled information. What methods and media were used? How did the various warring nations attempt to influence public opinion? What was communicated and how effective was the propaganda?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object


    All Quiet on the Western Front was released in 1930. It was the film of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel of the same name about the experiences of a soldier during the First World War. Remarque’s book and the film adaptation are classic anti-war statements. Alongside the patriotic, glorified heroic epics and “authentic” documentation of service for the fatherland, this was just one way in which the First World War was portrayed in literature and films – a medium that had come into being only twenty years before the outbreak of war.

  • Object

    Monitoring & control

    Everyday life in the Habsburg Monarchy was characterised by propaganda, monitoring and control, as can be seen by the many blank spaces in the daily newspapers and deletions in private correspondence and telegrams. At the same time an attempt was made in texts and audio-visual media to whip up general enthusiasm for the war. Not even the youngest inhabitants of the empire remained untouched, and the influence of the state was also felt in the schools of the Monarchy.

  • Object

    Depicting the war

    The photo by Alexander Exax shows a scene in the trenches in Galicia in 1915. The title “im Feuer” [“under fire”] gives the impression that the picture has been taken in the middle of the action. Dynamic photos like this were typical of the pictorial iconography of the First World War. The illustrated weeklies were among the most important distribution media, but there were others: exhibitions and posters, picture postcards and cinemas collaborated with private picture agencies and the official propaganda to provide a visual depiction of the war.


  • Development

    Daily life on the (home) front

    How was daily life at home and on the front between 1914 and 1918? Was the life of a middle-class woman similar to that of a worker? Did officers experience warfare in the same way as other ranks? Or were the experiences of the population at home and the soldiers at the front too individual and diverse for generalisations?