The Signpost


War photographers: from Crimea (1850s) to the Russian invasion of Ukraine (2022)

Contribute  —  
Share this
By Vysotsky

"The first casualty when war comes is truth" is a well-known quote. It is sometimes attributed to Hiram Johnson but probably older than this quote by Johnson from 1929: “The first casualty when war comes is truth and whenever an individual nation seeks to coerce by force of arms another, it always acts, and insists that it acts in self-defense" (Locomotive Engineers Journal, February 1929, p. 109). Does that remind anyone of a recent war?

Here we present a tour of war photography. We start in Crimea in 1855 and end it in Kyiv, about 550 miles to the north, about 165 years later. This tour makes stops in the United States in the 1860s, Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, and Vietnam in the 1970s.

Roger Fenton & the Crimean War (1850s)

The Crimean War (1853-1856) was a war in which Russia lost to an alliance of France, England, the Ottoman Empire and Piedmont-Sardinia. The image of that war is largely captured by drawings and paintings (Charge of the Light Brigade), but there were also photographers wandering around, notably Roger Fenton. (Perhaps I should use the words "driving around", because as shown below, camera equipment in those days required a vehicle to transport.) Fenton didn’t capture the cruelties of war, but gave a lively picture of the environment of the Crimean War.

American Civil War

Probably the first real war photographs were made by Mathew Brady in the American Civil War, around 1862. His bloody photographs paint a horrific image of the reality of war.

Spanish Civil War, World War II

Wars produce iconic photographs. Robert Capa will be mainly remembered for his photos of the Spanish Civil War (The Falling Soldier, 1936), but he also made photographs during World War II in Germany. War photographs can also be used as a weapon: the weapon of propaganda. It is well known that governments always try to prevent photographs of war scenes and body bags from being widely circulated. These photos influence public opinion. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, used photographs to effectively work the minds of the German people.


The opinion of the American people on the Vietnam War was heavily influenced by photos – think of the Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, a photo by Eddie Adams of the Saigon execution in 1969, or the picture by Nick Ut of children hit by napalm attacks in 1972.

Russian invasion of Ukraine

The Russian invasion of Ukraine began less than a week ago. Wikipedia is the encyclopedia that anyone can edit, and consequently, anyone in Ukraine with pictures to share can upload them to Wikipedia. Look carefully, and keep in mind that photographs are used to gain influence. So far, only a few photos have been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons. The Wikipedia editing event for Ukraine's Cultural Diplomacy Month 2022 was still being supported by the organizers as of February 24. While the event's call is for text editing, anyone who wants to join current editorial discussions about Ukraine – whether for current events or any other part of society – can talk to editors on the talk page there. Be aware that the discussion may be difficult.

In this issue
+ Add a comment

Discuss this story

Metadata, photos, prints, paintings, and secure reuse

Interesting article, thanks for posting. It does inspire me to poke around other war images, whether photographs or prints and paintings. Is there any reason for just including these wars? So many war photos are on Commons with lousy metadata and some have been used for entirely different conflicts!

I am going to assume you picked undisputed ones. It would be interesting to do the same exercise for paintings, which are often painted well after the fact, with a particular slant by the commissioner. I did do some work at some point on artist depictions of WWI and especially artists that died in WWI (sorry, can't remember who or which country now). The images of Ukraine are refreshing to have, we so rarely have secure images of breaking news though articles tend to grow quickly. I was got curious about an image that has become iconic for the Ukrainian struggle, and discovered it was already popular during the Crimean crisis of 2014. Digging around, still no closure on the work of the artist, which appears incomplete for the more graphic depictions.

I was going to update The Apotheosis of War article but then I realized we should have the whole series. It would be nice to track those down, but also to find other war works by artists reused for pacifism in later conflicts. Jane (talk) 10:42, 1 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]

I have some knowledge of war art - I've certainly done a lot of it for, offhand, The Franco-Prussian War, the Crimean War (the 19th century one), American Civil War, and First World War. Could be interesting to discuss the rise of the illustrated newspapers (Illustrated London News, Harper's Weekly, etc) and artists like Thure de Thulstrup, David Roberts, Alfred Waud, etc. Maybe leave propoganda posters for a seperate go, though, as they might over-dominate. I really don't have an international knowledge, however. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.6% of all FPs 12:43, 4 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
After posting this it occurred to me that something may have already been done by WP:Milhist, a project that I have come to rely on over the years, especially for things like historical ships. I will drop a note on their talkpage. It would be nice to be able to see how wars are covered historically over time (I am going to assume most works on Commons are images of paintings commissioned either directly by the victor in battles, or made years after the fact to commemorate something. Jane (talk) 10:29, 6 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
@Jane023: It varies. If you want some more immediate war footage, a large archive of soldier-artists and Newsparer correspondant sketches exist for the American Civil war. Alfred Waud is a good starting place on that account. The Franco-Prussian and Crimean Wars each had their own Special Artistic Correspondents - I think that's roughly the term they used - for The Illustrated London News and the other illustrated newspapers of the era, and that continues until photos took over fully, who h didn't fully happen until after WWI. After that, your best source is the soldiers in the ground. Bruce Bairnsfather is a famous artist of WWI, and he was there, and there's plenty of illustrated letters and artworks made by soldiers from the World Wars and I believe at least some for later conflicts, though we start to hit copyright issues at this point. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.6% of all FPs 15:42, 6 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
Oh there are much older examples of battle painters, and sometimes there are multiple copies of popular battle paintings (consider the Armada paintings and tapestries). It would be nice to somehow consider a category tree to collect these on Commons so you can browse them over time. Jane (talk) 18:36, 6 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
@Jane023: People painting them at the battle itself? I'm intrigued. I'm sure they exist, but people going around and drawing things as they happened (as opposed to paintings being done after the fact), only became a business with the rise of the illustrated newspapers, so those rarer artistically-inclined soldiers or whatever must be rather special documents for the earlier battles. Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.6% of all FPs 19:54, 6 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
No, "en plein air" painting wasn't possible until the invention of tube paints in the 19th century. Oil painting was definitely done in a studio. That said, artists were commissioned to accompany rulers in observation posts and make prepatatory sketches and afterwards, battle paintings ensued based on said sketches. See e.g. Willem van de Velde the Younger. Painting for the enemy was socially acceptable for itinerant artists. Jane (talk) 13:49, 7 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
@Jane023: That's actually quite fascinating. D'ye want to just... collaborate on an article in that line? I know the 19th century, you know the older stuff... Adam Cuerden (talk)Has about 7.6% of all FPs 20:16, 7 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]
I am reading this on 8 March, and have been busy trying to untangle Rubens paintings on Commons, so for International Women's Day I am looking at the Marie de' Medici cycle. Having categorized multiple Dutch art catalogs from the 17th century onwards, I can only assure you that battle paintings were included in all art cabinets of self-respecting rulers of Europe. This includes the aforementioned cycle. If you are curious about the battles that were painted, it may be possible to run a Wikidata query (never tried it). Let me know which part of my previous comments you found most fascinating and I can help point you in the right direction. Certainly there are tons of illustrations on Commons, if you want to dive into anything in this genre. These days I am most active on Wikidata, to be honest. Jane (talk) 10:45, 8 March 2022 (UTC)[reply]


The Signpost · written by many · served by Sinepost V0.9 · 🄯 CC-BY-SA 4.0