“The shock of the old made new”

Restored photographs taken on the battlefront during the First World War reveal the old conflict with astonishing new clarity.


The shock is not the shock of the new so much as the shock of the old made new — and the new made suddenly old.
— Geoff Dyer 1

Can the First World War still disturb us? Can a war that has been caught in pictures still affect us, dislocate us? Perhaps it has been “remembered to death.” Commemoration has become a hobby. … The horror has become kitsch, a product. Maybe we’ve drained history dry. The First World War needs to get dangerous again.
— David Van Reybrouck 2

Several years ago Carl De Keyzer set himself a daunting task — to track down thousands of glass plate negatives of photographs taken during the First World War with the goal of rephotographing and thus preserving the old images. A member of the Magnum Photos Agency since 1994, De Keyzer likes to tackle large-scale projects that explore the dynamics of power and politics. Based in his native Belgium, he has spent the past decades roaming the globe, producing portfolios that range from the Siberian Gulag to the post-colonial Congo to the American bible belt. Much of his work — including a recent series on European coastlines threatened by rising seas — is animated by the idea that in many places disaster has already struck and that solid-seeming infrastructures are on the verge of collapse.

De Keyzer’s interest in the photographic record of the First World War can be traced to his service in the historical division of the Belgian army, where his duties included reproducing prints taken during various 20th-century conflicts. For this latest project, he not only hunted down the old negatives; he also chose several hundred to reproduce: to digitize and then print in large format. A selection of these painstakingly prepared photographs is now being published, and earlier this year I interviewed De Keyzer about the process of discovering and restoring the century-old negatives.

Nancy Perloff: What led to the intersection of your photographic career with the First World War?

Carl De Keyzer: Much of my work has a strong connection to history. In 2010, I finished a two-book project about the Congo, which as you know was for many decades a Belgian colony. The first volume consisted of contemporary images of a ten-month trip I took to the Democratic Republic of Congo, during which I followed a tourist guidebook from 1954 — the last days of the colonial era — and so revisited hotels, monasteries, harbors, factories and mines built by the Belgians from the late 19th century on. The second volume was more unusual: I invented an imaginary photographer who was documenting the early years of the colony, from 1890 to 1925.

Nancy Perloff: For your latest project, on the First World War, you discovered approximately 10,000 archival images — glass plate and celluloid originals — and selected 100 to reproduce. But given that so many photographs from the era have been destroyed, how did you manage to unearth those that have survived? Can you tell us more about the sources you drew upon?

Carl De Keyzer: It was certainly a complicated process. When I was working on the Congo, I found a major collection of negatives in one institution, the Royal Museum of Central Africa, in Tervuren. In the case of the photographic record of the First World War, there are no such comprehensive collections. My team and I searched all over Europe — all over the world, in fact. We discovered that original negatives are available for fewer than five percent of the existing images. Most were destroyed during or after the war; some were recuperated for the silver used in the old collodion process, and many were simply badly treated or lost.

We made a list of about fifty different museums and collections worldwide, which over the course of several years we visited or contacted. These included the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Hoover Institution, in the United States; the War Office/National Archives, in the United Kingdom; the Musée Albert-Kahn, in Paris; the Bundesarchiv, in Berlin; and many places in Belgium. I spent weeks hunting through wooden boxes with dust-covered glass plates and containers packed with old prints, and poring through old albums. Most museums have not even begun to archive and digitize these collections.

We posed two key questions to the archival institutions. Could we scan the originals? And then would they allow me to restore the originals according to my own professional standards and personal perspectives? Only a few museums responded affirmatively to both questions. Most gave me usable scans they had made or remade based on my instructions. Sadly, some important museums refused to allow me to treat the images. Others gave me total control and let me re-scan and actually touch the originals.

Nancy Perloff: How did you restore the originals, remove the scratches and cracks, enlarge the plates? Was there a concern about departing too far from the historical image?

Carl De Keyzer: Everything was done with the utmost respect for the original creator. The negative was scanned at 100 percent, so that the new images would reveal no crops (which you often see in historical publications). We made an exact digital copy without altering the color; we then made a second version, again without changing the color, but this time removing all scratches and dust. One full-time studio assistant spent an entire year performing this work; each negative took two to three days. In the final stage, I adjusted the color and contrast, treating the images according to my ideas about what constitutes an ideal print. It was also very important always to keep in mind the whole project, so that all the images would work well together.

I never had concerns about drifting too far from the original. If a century from now someone found my own personal negatives — ideally a professional photographer like myself and not an academic (with all due respect) — I would be happy if that person would show my work with all the imperfections and maltreatments caused by time and use.

Nancy Perloff: You not only digitized and restored the glass plate negatives — you created monumental prints. Why did you decide to do this? The original print was always the same size as the original shot. None were intended for exhibition. How does this become an “authentic” approach?

Carl De Keyzer: My goal was to respect the work of the original photographers as much as I respect my own work, and to give these photographers the presence they deserved. But I also wanted to make the work more contemporary and to contribute to our understanding of the photography of that period. Too often historical photography is used merely for illustrative purposes. It’s when we treat the photographs as more than documentation that we can discover hidden value.

What I call the “contemporary” effect — the result of the enlargements — seems to me staggering. And as noted, the new prints reflect my values — they have my “signature” — which, I realize, is not an academic way of working. But as someone who has been making his own prints for decades, I’m in a good position to contribute to the ongoing debate. And in any case, the concept of the “ideal” print is always changing; even my view of my own work is always evolving due to time or age or new technology.

Nancy Perloff: How do the glass plate negatives you have uncovered, digitized, and printed differ from other images of the war? Is it their subjects, as well as their scale and clarity? What makes these unique?

Carl De Keyzer: I found many great images and sets of images, including some with known authors, but most were without negatives. Very frustrating! Most of the photos from the war that we see in books and even exhibitions are enlargements from small prints, mostly the size of the discarded original. And after several generations of reproductions, the quality of the original print is inevitably degraded. Only by returning to the negative can we achieve the highest possible quality.

Nancy Perloff: What gives the prints their astonishing clarity?

Carl De Keyzer: The original negatives, those that were preserved well and scanned and reproduced correctly, were simply mind-blowing in terms of detail and quality. All the glass plates were at least 4 x 5 inches. They had very high silver emulsions and low ISO, resulting in wonderfully contrasted and detailed negatives. But their full potential had never been realized; mostly they were used to create contact prints the same size as the negatives. The large prints we created allow us to see the full power of these photos. The photos of the German Collection, for instance — a series of shots of Belgian cities made by professional German photographers to document the spoils of the early war years — were exposed on very large negatives, 11 by 16 inches. And I reproduced the negatives myself with my Phase One IQ180 80 Mpix camera.

Nancy Perloff: In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes writes about how historical photos seem to defeat the advance of time: “I thought I could distinguish a field of cultural interest (the studium) from that unexpected flash which sometimes crosses this field and which I call the punctum.” Referring to a mid 19th-century photograph by Alexander Gardner — an image of Lewis Payne, taken in prison, after Payne attempted to assassinate William Seward, Secretary of State in the Lincoln administration — Barthes writes, “The photograph is handsome, as is the boy. That is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been. … This punctum … is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die.” 3 How might you apply this to the glass plate photographs?

Carl De Keyzer: It is very hard to know how the approach I have taken here might work with different audiences. My personal perspective and my limited knowledge of the history of the war have shaped this project. A century after the battles were fought, and with the application of techniques and technologies that would baffle the early 20th-century creators, these images might now appear very subjective. Yet I can see that the photos might seem to defy and sometimes defeat time — they’ve brought this history into the now. Perhaps they will inspire a new and more profound interest in the history they depict.

Editors' Note

The photographs in this feature are drawn from The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front, which is being published this month by University of Chicago Press. They appear here with permission of the publisher.

Photo Credits

The photographs by Isadore Aubert and Albert Moreau appear courtesy of ECPAD, Paris; by Arthur Brusselle, courtesy of the City Archive, Coll. Brusselle-Traen, Bruges; of the German Collection, courtesy of KIK-IRPA, Brussels.

  1. Geoff Dyer, Preface, The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 10.
  2. David van Reybrouck, Introduction, The First World War: Unseen Glass Plate Photographs of the Western Front, 12.
  3. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1980), 96.
Restored photos by Carl De Keyzer; De Keyzer in conversation with Nancy Perloff, ““The shock of the old made new”,” Places Journal, November 2015. Accessed 08 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/151111

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