Unique set of WWI photos goes on display at Prague Castle

A new exhibit at Prague Castle presents a unique and never before seen collection of photographs from the First World War. Taken by an anonymous Czech soldier between 1916 and 1917, the photo set is a rare and very touching depiction of one of the deadliest conflicts in history.

“World War One on Foot” is the name of a new exhibition which opens on Thursday at Prague Castle. It presents some 150 digitally processed photographs, selected and blown up from nearly 500 original glass negatives. All of them were taken by an unknown Czech officer of the Austro-Hungarian army, apparently between 1916 and 1917, and depict everyday scenes of life on the battlefield. Daniela Mrázková is the curator of the exhibit.

“This is the first really big collection of photos from WWI. The photos have a really high quality of composition. While other big events in world history had their own big photographers, WWI has not had one until now.”

The photographs show troops in training, at rest and on the march; they show field hospitals, laundries and bakeries; military equipment and machinery and many other moments. Jan Haas of Prague’s Military Historical Institute, identified the scenes and the military units that appear in the photos.

“The photos were taken around 1916 and 1917 in two areas – in Galicia and at the Isonzo front in Italy. The photos from Galicia show civilian life in various cities and towns, the local population, and of course troops at rest; the pictures from Italy capture cities, trenches, and various events such as reconnaissance and attack drills and visitations by higher commanders to the respective units.”

Curator Daniela Mrázková says that besides the very good quality of the pictures, the whole collection is one of the best examples of humanistic photography.

“It’s very touching to see these young men far away from their homes in very cruel conditions. For instance, when they are in a cemetery or when they are talking before a battle, and so on. I think it’s these moments that make the pictures unique.”

While the organizers were able to determine most of the locations and even the military units that appear in the pictures, the identity of the author remains a mystery. In 2002, the glass negatives were discovered in the archive of a Prague photographer who says he acquired them more than 30 years ago, and had since long forgotten about them. Curator Daniela Mrázková says that the man was probably a very skilled amateur photographer.

“He had probably his own profession, perhaps a technical one, because the technical quality of these pictures is very high, and after the war, he continued as an amateur photographer.”

Do you know what kind of equipment, what kind of camera he used to take these photos?

“It was evidently a big, heavy camera, a primitive camera, and that’s why it’s so interesting that these pictures are so vivid.”

The exhibition is held at the Theresian Wing of the Old Royal Palace at Prague Castle until mid July. For more information, go to www.hrad.cz.