Steven Loveridge reviews The Front Line in the New Zealand Journal of History


The Front Line: Images of New Zealanders in the Second World War by Glyn Harper with Susan Lemish has been reviewed by Steven Loveridge in the New Zealand Journal of History:

‘The intent of Glyn Harper and Susan Lemish’s The Front Line is easily summarized: to showcase a photographic record of New Zealand’s experience of World War II. Some 800 photographs, sourced from service museums and a public appeal for material, are exhibited, most of which have never been published before.

The selected material is grouped into 12 chapters covering various facets of New Zealand’s war experience. These are, true to the title, focused on the sharp end — the war at sea, in the air, in Greece, in North Africa, in Italy and in the Pacific — though entries on the home front, POW camps (despite cameras being contraband), Jayforce and select shots of training and departures in New Zealand highlight some wider aspects of the war effort and wartime experiences. Each chapter includes a summary text, a selection of photographs and captions highlighting some notable details.

Looking across this record of New Zealand’s war leaves some notable impressions. Firstly, the record itself illustrates how World War II was, as Richard Holmes notes, “a photographer’s war” (p. 8). Improvements in lenses and film made the war’s photography sharper than that of previous conflicts, especially measured against the pioneering examples of the nineteenth century. While black and white photography was the norm, with colour an expensive novelty, the monochromatic hues of many images are appealing and grant a distinct gravitas. Moreover, the sheer extent of material attests to how cameras had become more reliable, portable, affordable and abundant.

Other impressions relate to the images’ content. The vehicles and equipment that dominate so many shots, for instance, decidedly mark them as coming from a machine-age conflict. One photo freezes a crew in the act of painting their victory marks on the immense flank of their Lancaster bomber; in another, a Supermarine Spitfire is captured mid-manoeuvre, demonstrating both the agility of the fighter and advances in aerial photography; in yet another, troops are photographed as they manhandle a delivery of the fuel drums needed to keep the engines turning. The mangled ruins of armour and airframes appear to have exerted a particular fascination and are the study of multiple pictures.

Similarly imparted is the physical setting and climes the war played out in. Photos capture the dust, flies and stretch of the North African desert, the rugged terrain of the Italian countryside, the confines of the bombing war and the oceanic expanses of the war at sea — against which downed airmen look very small. Against this sense of a war far away and long ago, scenic shots of Waiouru Camp framed against Mount Ruapehu, Parliament grounds in Wellington or the Lyttelton waterfront are all readily recognizable as the world we have inherited.

Other images are less obvious in signalling the particulars of their time and place. An exemplary example on page 131 freezes two silhouetted figures against a skyline. Although the caption provides the shapes’ identities (Charles Upham and Tom White), and while an accoutrement of caps and pipes gives some sense of a temporal location, it is a strangely timeless image.

Many photos witness small moments of life in a world war. Troops brew up, arrange entertainment and try to find respite in inhospitable conditions. Some figures are snapped unaware; others pose and affirm the photograph as a deliberate act of presentation. Some images have elements of both, the actions of a moment captured while a lone figure breaks from the scene and returns the camera’s gaze — the effect is like making eye contact across time.

Lastly, and as always, questions around the relationship between history and sources arise. What was photographed and what was passed over? What was left outside the frame? What survived and was donated? What choices did the authors make? Live action shots, “the gold standard of war photography”, are noted as “incredibly rare” (p. 10). While sensibilities impose some difficult choices over how the realities of war might be conveyed, some sense of its carnage is not neglected. The torpedoing of HMS Barham, lost along with her crew of 862 souls, is frozen mid explosion. Topographic photographs document the devastation wrought by bombing runs. At a more individual scale, photos depict flying officer Ivan Williamson’s facial burns, the course of wartime surgery and recoveries in hospital. Images of graveyards and burials at sea illustrate some inevitable results of combat.

In a final sense, The Front Line collects and impresses many revealing, insightful and horrific snapshots of New Zealand’s part in the global catastrophe of World War II and small moments of those caught up within it. That endeavourer is aptly aided by Massey University Press’s characteristically high level of attention to design and presentation.’