As the centenary anniversary of the Battle of the Somme approaches, we talk with battlefield photographer and Mary Evans contributor, Mike St Maur Sheil about his extraordinary battlefield photographs, soon to be the subject of a commemorative exhibition at the Guildhall Yard in the City of London.
Looking at your photographs, you are obviously very familiar with the battlefields of France and Belgium. How did you begin photographing them?
In early 2005 I began to realise that carrying kit up vertical ladders and shooting in heavy industry might lose its appeal when I got to be 60+ so started thinking about centenary events for possible books and so on, and realised the First World War Centenary was not far off. I knew nothing about the history so I went and saw a well known British military historian, Professor Richard Holmes.
He liked my idea and so I photographed a couple of battlefields: he liked the results and we started working together. The concept of the exhibition and its content is something which evolved over many glasses of good red ‘infuriator'.
Unexploded shells unearthed by ploughing near Munich Trench Cemetery © WesternFrontPhotography/Mary Evans (Picture no. 10577582)
What place do you feel has resulted in the most effective photographs? Do you have a favourite location?
So many places have produced pictures with which I feel really satisfied. I hate the description of ‘lucky’ shots because you have to be in the right place at that instant and really what you are doing is merely taking advantage of the circumstances. My point is that as the photographer you have to create those circumstances, that 'luck', by actually being there, ready and able to shoot.
For most people, it’s difficult to imagine what the battlefields looked like 100 years ago. How do you think your images of them today can help people connect with the past and does this inform the way in which you take pictures?
Very definitely: everyone takes pictures these days so they relate very swiftly to images of different places. I am very conscious of the history of men and events so I always try a shoot locations which have a story attached that I can then use to further enhance the picture.
Newfoundland Memorial Park, Beaumont Hamel, Somme - aerial view ©WesternFrontPhotography.com/Mary Evans (picture no. 10921024)
A lot of your pictures have been shot in the early morning. You also appear to shoot from a low angle. What are your reasons for this?
I like shooting before sunrise as this is a time of day familiar to all the men in the trenches: the pre-dawn light was when they would all be roused and “standing-to” in the expectation that the enemy might attack. The low angle of my photographs comes from the simple fact that the men lived in trenches so their angle of view really was at ground level. I am merely trying to show the landscape as they would have seen it.
What kind of challenges have you encountered while taking your pictures in the area?
The constant daily challenge was getting up 90 minutes before dawn to ensure that I was actually at the location I wanted to shoot 30 mins before sun-rise. But the real challenge was creative: because the history of the landscape dictated where I had to shoot, I had no choice when it came to selecting my subject. Most landscape photographers will head for places which are already recognised for their beauty and visual impact - mountains, lakes, seascapes are the usual subject for such work - but I was faced with landscape whose ‘attraction’ was not visual but rather historical.
Lochnagar Crater, blown at 07:28 on 1 July 1916 © WesternFrontPhotograph.com/Mary Evans (picture no. 10577720)
Many of your images have a real sense of peace, calm and isolation. How close to reality is that?
Today many of these places are indeed places of real beauty and tranquillity. It is that contrast with the death and destruction of 100 years ago that I wish to emphasise. I am always seeking to show that time and nature really have healed the scars of war.
Your pictures are a moving tribute to the people who fought and died in these areas, and we know at Mary Evans that they provoke an emotional reaction in the viewer. For you, has there been any single place or background story that has particularly moved you?
I suppose that there are two shots which stick in my mind. There is the one of the London Irish ‘Loos Football’ taken on the very ground where men kicked it towards enemy trenches in September 1915. The other is the photograph of the underground chapel at Confrecourt. This is a place where you really can reach out and touch the men of 14-18 and Richard Holmes told me that whenever he was there, he was always ‘deafened by the silent sound of the French soldiers singing the Marseillaise’.
Somme munitions in a private garden, recovered by the owner of the property © WesternFrontPhotography.com/Mary Evans (picture no. 10809448)
Tell us about the Fields of Battle: Lands of Peace exhibitions. How did the idea originate?
I saw the exhibition Earth from the Air created by Yyan Arthus-Bertrand and I just loved the way it drew in casual passers-by: probably 90% of people never go to museums or art galleries but this was attracting crowds of people. Fields of Battle, Lands of Peace is intended to act in the same way: it does not seek to teach the history of WWI but rather to entice passers-by to stop and see what it is all about. After that, hopefully it will arouse their curiosity and maybe even persuade them to visit some of these battlefields.
And how have the exhibitions been received by the public?
It has been phenomenal: the two exhibitions in Paris and London in 2014 had over 4 million visitors and a recent one in the Champs Elysées had over 600,000. It has been interesting to find out how many people have re-visited several times and the best comment was made by a gentleman on the day we were taking down the exhibition in St James’s Park, London. He asked one of the crew dis-mantling the exhibition whether it was indeed coming down and upon being told that it was exclaimed, ‘Thank God for that! Now I will get to work on time.'
British observation post near Hebuterne on the Somme, built in 1917 and overlooking Gommecourt Wood. © WesternFrontPhotography.com/Mary Evans (picture no. 10809451)
What’s next for Fields of Battle photography?
We will be opening a Somme exhibition in the Guildhall Yard in the City of London on 1 June. That will be moving to Belfast in July and thereafter to Dublin in late August as part of a cross-border reconciliation project to show both communities how the events of WW1 were a common experience and deserve a common remembrance.
I am talking with the American National World War I Museum about an American exhibition to tour the US in ’17 & ’18 and of course there is the end of the war on 11 November ’18 so obviously I am hoping that we will still be able make a contribution to that event.
After that: fishing, walking my grey-hound and visits to battlefields without having to get up early in the morning :-))
Fields of Battles, Lands of Peace: Somme 100 runs from 1 June to 3 July 2016 at the Guildhall Yard, City of London. As part of an accompanying lecture programme, Mary Evans' Luci Gosling will be talking about the WWI art of Fortunino Matania at St. Lawrence Jewry church in the City at 6pm on 22 June - free entry. For more details, visit the Corporation of London's website - http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/things-to-do/visit-the-city/whats-on/Pages/somme.aspx
© Luci Gosling/Mary Evans. With thanks to Mike for his time.