Art and Death in French Photographs of Ruins, 1914–1918

in Historical Reflections/Réflexions Historiques
Nicole Hudgins University of Baltimore

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The avalanche of ruin photography in the archives, albums, publications, and propaganda of World War I France challenges us to understand what functions such images fulfilled beyond their use as visual documentation. Did wartime images of ruin continue the European tradition of ruiniste art that went back hundreds of years? Or did their violence represent a break from the past? This article explores how ruin photography of the period fits into a larger aesthetic heritage in France, and how the depiction of ruins (religious, industrial, residential, etc.) on the French side of the Western Front provided means of expressing the shock and grief resulting from the unprecedented human losses of the war. Using official and commercial photographs of the period, the article resituates ruin photography as an aesthetic response to war, a symbol of human suffering, and a repository of rage.

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