University of Delaware Library
Bookmark and Share
UD Special Collections > Exhibitions > In Focus > War Photography > Next

Focus on war photography banner

Early War Photography

“The truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.” – Robert Capa

War photography refers to military photographs in general, photographs of civilians caught in conflicts, or images of the home front. The first extensive photographic coverage of war was undertaken by British photographer Roger Fenton (1819-1869) only fourteen years after the first daguerreotype was made. Outfitted with a wagon serving as a mobile darkroom, Fenton documented the Crimean War (1853-1856) toting five cameras, 700 glass plates, and the necessary chemicals for his collodion plates. Despite the limitations of cumbersome equipment, extreme heat, and great personal risk under direct shellfire, Fenton produced about 300 usable negatives. His work brought home to the public, for the first time, the bleak drama of war: dead soldiers and war-torn landscapes.

In America, Matthew Brady (circa 1822-1896) became well-known as a portrait photographer and daguerreotypist before he set out to chronicle the Civil War (1861-1865). Brady’s Washington, D.C., studio was frequently visited by American President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Brady and his crew of cameramen, carting portable darkrooms, traversed the front lines at great peril to capture every aspect of war: battlefields, ruins, officers and soldiers, corpses, engineering, transport, ships, and artillery.

Among the many photographers Brady oversaw were Alexander Gardner (1821-1882), Timothy O’Sullivan (circa 1840-1882), and George Barnard (1819-1902), each of whom became noted in his own right for documenting the Civil War, the American West, and the execution of the Lincoln conspirators. Among Brady’s most powerful images were his photographs of the battlefield dead, which emphasized the gruesomeness of war and the scale of this American tragedy. By the end of the war, Brady’s studio had produced approximately 7,000 plates.

Gardner's photographic sketch book of the war pontoon boat


Alexander Gardner (1821-1882)

Gardner's photographic sketch book of the war. Washington, D.C. : Philip & Solomons, 1865.

Shown here is the second of two volumes, with color facsimiles of title page and photographs. There are 100 unnumbered albumen silver print photographs mounted on leaves in the two hefty volumes of this important documentary project of the Civil War, which remains one of the most famous photographically illustrated books produced in America. Each plate is accompanied by letterpress captions. Photographers participating in the project include Barnard & Gibson (8 photographs); Alexander Gardner (16); J. Gardner (10); David Knox (4); Thomas H. O’Sullivan (45); William R. Pywell (3); J. Reekie (7); W. Morris Smith (1); Wood & Gibson (5); and D. B. Woodbury (1). Scottish-American Alexander Gardner taught himself photography and was one of several photographers under the supervision of Matthew Brady during the Civil War. Along with Timothy O’Sullivan, Gardner left Brady’s employment in protest of Brady’s failure to credit his photographers. Gardner served as the official photographer of the Army of the Potomac; his photographs reveal much about Civil War-era military operations, armaments, and camp life. After the war, Gardner photographed the execution of the Lincoln conspirators and followed the expansion of the Union Pacific Railroad as its official photographer. The Abraham Lincoln collection in Special Collections includes a Gardner portrait of Lincoln as well as prints of the execution of the Lincoln conspirators, which are now available as a digital collection from the University of Delaware Library.


Dialectica print with cannon

Peter Rutledge Koch.

“Dialectica” from The VII Liberal Arts. Berkeley, California: Editions Koch, 2002.

This portfolio of letterpress prints was inspired by the seven liberal arts based on the types of studies pursued in the classical world and codified in medieval times: grammar, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and logic. California fine press printer Peter Koch—once self-described as a surrealist cowboy, maverick poet, and pre-Socratic philosopher—composed the prints with wood type and contemporary World War I-era photographs from an Italian newspaper. The print shown here ironically pairs “Dialectica” (logic) with the persuasive photograph of a canon.





Photojournalism and War

"Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference." —Robert Frank

The twentieth century’s many armed conflicts were covered with increasing intensity in new roles for military photographers as well as journalists on assignment and even amateurs. Camera equipment as well as film processes advanced, literally taking photography to new heights. Kodak and others developed new cameras for aerial long-range oblique photography during World War I. The U.S. Army Air Forces grew in World War II and military photographers were trained in aerial photographic reconnaissance, while war correspondents such as Robert Capa created memorable impressions with their cameras on the ground.

Government censorship restricted war photographers in the early part of the century. Photographers during World War I were not permitted on the front lines, nor were they allowed to take images of dead and wounded servicemen. Limitations continued during World War II, until the Roosevelt administration permitted the publication of George Strock’s 1943 photograph of three dead soldiers on a New Guinea beach in Life Magazine.

The Vietnam War changed coverage of armed conflict drastically. Censorship was greatly curtailed and photographers were allowed to cover troops in action more freely. In the 1960s, nightly television news programs were expanded to 30 minutes, requiring more film footage and visual source material. Daily “killed and wounded” reports were illustrated with graphic atrocities of combat, thus positioning the Vietnam War as the “first war taking place in America’s living rooms.” By the early 1990s, the 24-hour news cycle was well-established, and coverage of the Gulf War was a constant, though more clinically captured story with distant aerial views of pinpoint bombing.


"Graves of the Rough Riders"

Photographic history of the war with Spain : in addition to being a photographic history of the war with Spain it tells all about our navy, Spain, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines / introductory note by Joseph Wheeler. Baltimore, Md. : R.H. Woodward Co., 1899, c1898.
Sample Book collection

In the era of “Yellow Journalism,” the William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer newspaper publishing empires played active roles in controversially sensational coverage of issues leading up to the Spanish American War. This salesman’s “dummy” with sample binding and preview of pages was used for advance sales of the Photographic history of the war with Spain.

The four-month war had cost the United States $250 million and 3,000 lives, 90 per cent of whom had perished from infectious diseases.

Eastman Kodak Co.Kodakery cover, January 1918

Kodakery : a magazine for amateur picture takers. Rochester : Eastman Kodak Co., 1918. Volume 5, number 5.
William I. Homer papers, gift of William I. Homer

Advances in personal cameras for individual consumers meant that even the dough boys of World War I could be targeted for product advertising by Kodak. The Vest Pocket Autographic Kodak was marketed as a “soldier’s camera” during the Great War and personal photographs began to supplement the documentation recorded by official war photographers. This issue of Kodakery features an article about cameras and the warfront.





Robert Capa's "Falling Soldier"Robert Capa (1913-1954)

Robert Capa, 1913-1954. New York : Grossman Publishers, 1974.

Robert Capa photographed five wars between 1936 and his death in 1954, but it was his coverage of his first, the Spanish Civil War, that earned him the title of “The Greatest War Photographer in the World” in 1938. His fame was established, at age 22, by the 1936 photograph of “Falling Soldier,” shown on the cover of this book. Capa’s courageous coverage of battle action, including photographs taken on the beach on D-Day, set the standard for all future photojournalists. Robert Capa’s enduring legacy is also enhanced by his role as a co-founder in Paris in 1947 of Magnum, the eminent photographic agency. Capa was mortally wounded by a land mine explosion in Vietnam.



Office of Military Government, United States. Württemberg-Baden.

“Ulm-Münster, before and after bombardment,” from War damage in Württemberg : a selection of photographs. Stuttgart, Germany, December 1945.

This portfolio of photographs presents before-and-after images of German cultural sites in Württemberg in 1945. Sgt. Gordon Chadwick of the OMGUS, MFA&A Section (Office of Military Government, United States, Monument Fine Arts and Archives Section) compiled this folio of photographs taken by Helga Glassner, Lazi, Lt. Koch, Landesamt für Denkmalpflege and the Landesbildstelle. The report noted that the decentralized location of art in abbeys, village churches, and rural castles contributed to their escapement from the heavier serial bombing that targeted larger cities such as Stuttgart, as shown here.

“England 1/1/45—Wounded from Bastogne.” Signal Corps Radio Telephoto, London.
Paul W. Knauf, Jr. World War II photograph collection

Philadelphian Paul W. Knauf, Jr. (1900-1999) was an engineer and officer who served in the 805th Signal Service Company of the Army Signal Corps during World War II. Stationed in London with Allied communications associated with Winston Churchill’s War Room, Knauf’s work included the transmission of war images to the United States. He worked on projects that developed digital transmission of voice and images. Fifteen of the 71 photographs in this collection were created using the Army’s radio tele-photograph electronic-transmission system, representing an important technological development in tele-facsimile reproduction processes.

Bombs Away title page


John Steinbeck (1902-1968) and John Swope (1908-1979)

Bombs away : the story of a bomber team written for the U.S. Army Air Forces, with 60 photographs by John Swope. First edition. New York : Viking Press, 1942.

American author John Steinbeck joined photographer John Swope on this project to explain the training required and roles of the pilot, navigator, crew chief, bombardier, gunner, and radio man comprising bomber crews in the U.S. Army Air Forces not long after America’s entry into World War II. The book was meant to help recruit pilots and crew for service. Swope, a photographer who got his start documenting federal housing projects during Roosevelt’s New Deal, was also a pilot and enlisted in the Army as a flight instructor at the start of the war. The Army put his photography skills to use with this project.


Bill Burke (b. 1943)

Mine fields. Atlanta : Nexus Press, 1995.

A facsimile of Burke’s field notes is included with this Nexus Press publication, along with a signed photographic print (see above, on the wall).

Photographic print, laid in with Mine Fields
Signed by the author/photographer.

In contrast to the photojournalists of the 1960s who documented the urgent story of the Vietnamese War and worked on deadlines to get daily shots over the wire to their agencies, Bill Burke first traveled to Southeast Asia in the 1980s, in the wake of Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. His work in Mine Fields and the earlier I Want To Take Picture (1987) is part travel narrative and part autobiographical journey. Burke’s photography represents his role as witness to the aftermath of war. He captures the lost people, ravaged landscape, and ruined cultural monuments of Cambodia with solemn, carefully composed photographs.

Viet Nam : a photographic essay of the undeclared war in Southeast Asia. Introduction by Marty Bronson. New York : Gallery Association of New York State (Philadelphia : Falcon Press), 1972.

This catalog is from an exhibition held June 7-August 6, 1972, at the Brooklyn Museum, that featured the work of nine photojournalists who covered the Vietnam War. Three of these were killed in action and six were classified as “missing in action” at the time. The page spread shown here features the work of Larry Burrows, a British photojournalist who was killed in Laos when his helicopter was shot down. Larry Burrows (1926-1971) had ten years of professional experience by the time he arrived in Vietnam in 1962 on assignment for Life. His first 14-page photo essay, subtitled “We Wade Deeper into Jungle War,” appeared in 1963 and marked the beginning of unforgettable war photography from Southeast Asia in that decade.

Burrows captured the escalating conflict with images of soldiers and civilians, Americans and Viet Cong, taking photographs from the air in open helicopters or on the ground with troops mucking through flooded rice paddies or jungle vines. His photo essays—some in black and white, some in vivid colors of green, mud, and blue—told disturbing stories of battle missions and the effect of the war on so many young men and terrified villagers.

This page is maintained by Special Collections.

  • UD Library Special Collections  •   181 South College Avenue  •   Newark, DE 19717-5267  •   USA
    Phone: USA +1 302-831-2229  •   ©2014