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Unlike today, when almost everyone has a mobile device that takes good quality photos, things were much different more than a century ago when "the camera was as big as a microwave oven and needed a heavy tripod." After George Eastman from Rochester, New York, introduced the 'Kodak' camera in 1888, "anyone could now take pictures with a handheld camera simply by pressing a button." People fell in love with Kodak’s inexpensive folding pocket cameras that made photography available to everyone.
In April 1912 the Vest Pocket Kodak camera, or 'VPK' as it was usually known, was one of the most popular and successful cameras with over two million sold before the model was discontinued in 1926. With its 127mm film, the VPK took negatives slightly larger than a postage stamp – just 1⅝ by 2½ inches. The camera's compact shape, its retractable bellows lens and its body manufactured in metal instead of wood meant that the VPK could be made much more durable and smaller. When closed, the VPK measures just 1 by 2½ by 4¾ inches – an ideal size for the 'vest', the American term for a waistcoat. Eastman placed much importance on advertising and the VPK received positive reviews by the photographic press. Three years later, in 1915, the 'Autographic' VPK was introduced and coincided with a boom in camera sales linked with the outbreak of the Great War. Advertised as 'The Soldier's Camera' it became a best seller with soldiers of all nationalities taking these cameras to war and record their travels and experiences. Kodak encouraged owners to 'Make your own picture record of the War' and offered substantial cash prizes for best snapshots. The price of a VPK camera varied: as low as six dollars for a basic model and as high as twenty-five dollars for a high-quality device for the ambitious amateur. Kodak was not the only company that produced retractable cameras. For example, Houghtons Ltd., a British competitor also marketed its products to front-line soldiers and ran their own advertising campaign. With such a variety of available choices, soldiers of any rank could own one, but the reality is that because of costs, the great majority of cameras were possessed by officers.
At the beginning of the war, the army did not prohibit its soldiers from taking private cameras overseas. As the British War Office did not plan for or give access to news and photographs during the first months of the war, no accompanying press or military photographers landed with the British Expeditionary Force in France. In the absence of official photographs, the press was starved of news and photographs of actual hostilities in progress. Desperate for 'front-line' images, newspapers began to offer cash inducements to serving soldiers to submit their best images for publication. While a few received large sums of money, the remainder were able to increase their salaries but not enough to earn a fortune as many had expected. Many of the pictures provided by soldiers showed a compassionate side of the war, sometimes smiling in the battlefront, and even presented British and German soldiers meeting on what appeared to be on friendly terms. Such photographs caused a sensation with the public but stood against how the British military wanted to portray the enemy, an ongoing fear over security and the involvement of spies, and their ability to maintain the fighting spirit at home or abroad.
Alarmed at the appearance of these photographs in press, the British Expeditionary Force's Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French (1852-1925), issued a contact ban under General Routine Order 464 on 22 December 1914: "It has been brought to notice that drawings, photographs, and letters are being sent to the Press. This practice is forbidden. The taking of photographs is not permitted." This first attempt to ban cameras was not widely known among the troops on the Western Front and would not have been read by those about to embark for overseas service. Having achieved limited results, the War Office declared a more comprehensive ban on 16 March 1915: "The taking of photographs is not permitted and the sending of films through the post is prohibited. Any officers or soldiers (or other persons subject to military law) found in possession of a camera will be placed in arrest, and the case reported to the General Headquarters as to disposal." A third army-wide instruction published a month later, on 19 April 1915, banned cameras for anyone while serving with the British Army in the field. The First Army reissued the warnings in September 1915 reiterating the serious consequences of not following given orders. For other ranks, getting caught could mean a punishment of twenty-eight up to 112 days' detention. A court marshal conviction for officers could mean a humiliating release from the army. Reluctantly, most of the officers, non-commissioned officers and men gave up their camera and sent it home. Despite being forbidden by the military authorities, it did not deter many to secretly smuggle in, and use, without attracting attention. It is known that thousands of illegal private photographs were taken during the Great War. These unofficial images provide us with valuable historical evidence about their daily lives and have also shaped our understanding of the realities of war.
Brenton Harold "Jack" Turner (24 September 1889 – 6 October 1989) was one of these photographers who quietly defied these military orders. At the age of 25, Turner enlisted at Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island on 2 September 1915 and enrolled as a gunner serving with the 2nd Siege Battery, Canadian Garrison Artillery. At the outbreak of the Great War, three battery-sized units were raised and deployed from Prince Edward Island as part of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. An award-winning amateur photographer before the war, he decided to smuggle a small German-made camera with him when he went overseas in 1915. He took about 99 photographs from the war zone. Years later, Turner said "I didn't know what kind of inspection they'd have, so I made pockets in under my sleeve to hide it." The officers in his company, mostly Islanders like himself, turned a blind eye to the illegal camera. He developed his negatives on leave, or on the battlefield: "in old cellars or any dark place you could get." In a 1979 interview, Turner said, "It never crossed my mind, the future of these pictures, I just took them to suit myself." Jack Turner's work represents a unique look at life at the front during the Great War, shot through the lens of an ordinary soldier, not an official war photographer. Turner returned home from the war in May 1919 and seven months later married, and took up farming in Knutsford, near O’Leary. After retirement from farming in 1952, Turner returned to photography and three years later was again winning prizes for his work. He was known mainly for his landscapes, but fellow veterans were aware of his war photography and making prints from his First World War negatives. His work became widely known during the 1970s and in 1979, American-Canadian photographer George S. Zimbel (1929- ) organized an exhibit of Turner's photo sculptures at CBC Charlottetown. Jack Turner died in 1989 at 100 years of age. Simply listed on his headstone as a "veteran of World War I", he is buried alongside his wife, Donna Gertrude Dennis (1892-1981), at the Bloomfield United Cemetery, Prince County, Prince Edward Island.
Twenty-six years after his death, the Prince Edward Island Museum and Heritage Foundation, the Prince Edward Island Regiment Museum and the Confederation Centre Art Gallery held a special exhibition of "Snapshots of Armageddon: Jack Turner and the Great War" at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown from 11 November 2015 to 1 May 2016. Featuring more than a dozen of his war photographs and other artistic pieces, this exhibition presented a perspective on how Turner chose to modify and reinterpret his memories of that war. One of his works included a photo of the Cloth Hall at Ypres, Belgium where the town saw some of the deadliest battles of the war with an estimated 500,000 British, Canadian, French, Belgian and German soldiers who died fighting. Although Turner was still on Prince Edward Island when Ypres endured its heaviest shelling and first lethal chlorine gas attack of the war in April 1915, he took his base photo of the destroyed 13th century building much later when the fighting had subsided. It was in the aftermath of the Second Battle of Ypres that Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae wrote "In Flanders Fields," a poem that continues to resonate to this day.
On this day, 6 October 2021, we commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the death of Jack Turner a veteran of the First World War, mark more than 106 years since the conclusion of the Second Battle of Ypres, Belgium, and remember the great losses suffered during that war, and the horrific events that inspired what became Canada’s best known war poem.
André M. Levesque