By PAUL GESSELL
The star attraction of a new photography exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada is a fake.
The photograph by William Ivor Castle shows Canadian soldiers storming Vimy Ridge in 1917. This is an event among the most important in our history. It was a battlefield victory in which Canada was suddenly perceived as having evolved from a dependent colony to a vigorous sovereign country.
Castle’s panorama, at 11 feet by 20 feet, was billed as the largest photograph in the world when it was first exhibited in Grafton Galleries in London in 1917 and then sent on tour to Canada. Crowds lined up on the street to get a peek. Then, the fake photo went into storage for almost 100 years.
At the time, the photograph was dubbed The Taking of Vimy Ridge, although the National Gallery now calls it 29th Infantry Battalion advancing over “No man’s land” through the German Barbed Wire and Heavy Fire during the Battle of Vimy Ridge, 1917. And the National Gallery’s print of this photo is slightly smaller than the original.
The problem is that this photo is a cleverly disguised compilation created long before anyone ever heard of Photoshop. The dead bodies of soldiers in the foreground were added later. So were the black puffs of artillery smoke wafting heavenward.
But at least it is not as fake as another monumental work exhibited at Grafton Galleries the previous year in which scenes at a British training camp were marketed as the site of a real battlefield on the Continent somewhere.
The faked Vimy Ridge photo can be found in the National Gallery’s newly opened exhibition, The Great War: The Persuasive Power of Photography. This oversized photo is displayed in a room that has been made into a replica of the 1917 Grafton Galleries exhibition largely devoted to scenes of Vimy Ridge. Photographs are stacked salon-style. The room is, in fact, overwhelming, filled as it is with so much death and destruction. (A previous room prints on one wall the names of all the approximately 65,000 dead Canadian soldiers from the First World War.)
The faking of photographs seemed to be a common wartime activity, at least at Grafton Galleries. Exhibitions devoted to British and Australian battles also featured composites as centrepieces.
Painters of historical events have been faking scenes for hundreds of years, so the early 20th century photographers were merely following in their footsteps. Thus, we should consider the monumental photograph like an historical painting.
Anyway, don’t let a fake here and there dissuade you from attending this exhibition. There are many gems among the 400 photographs in the show.
Among them are a series of staged wartime scenes by the French photographer Leon Gimpel. The colour photographs show costumed French children battling, with toy armaments, make-believe German soldiers. My favourite: The execution of a Boche with a French 75.
The photos are reminiscent of the images of Ottawa contemporary artist Jonathan Hobin, who has done remarkable work capturing children acting in adult roles.
The exhibition continues at the National Gallery until Nov. 16 and serves as a great companion show to some First World War paintings on view at the Canadian War Museum.