Aug 15 2016
Photographer Peter Cattrell gives a personal insight into his exhibition at Weston Park and the significance of showing his work in Sheffield:
In Europe there is a strong individual and collective memory of the First World War. Every family was affected directly or indirectly. There were seven of my relatives involved, including my grandmother who was a VAD nurse in WW1. She would never talk about her time tending the wounded and dying. My grandfather from Sheffield, an officer in the RAOC, often said how bad it was that the generals sent out men to attack when the barbed wire wasn’t cut, including his younger brother at the Somme.
My father was a research scientist in WW2, and didn’t talk much about that era. My mother was in the WRNS and told stories of her time, but was very sensitive about the loss and suffering of people in WW2, both civilians and in the armed forces. My generation is the first not to have to fight in a World War in my family.
When I did my degree in Photography at LCP the Falklands War happened, and we discussed that, including how different newspapers used photographs. As a child I remember seeing images of the Vietnam war regularly, and also the troubles in Northern Ireland were very prominent. As a tutor at St Martins I watched the Gulf, and Afghan wars on TV with footage of accurate missiles hitting their targets. Today we live with conflict in different forms on a day to day basis, with the threat of terrorism being foremost in our minds.
The world of the Great War a century ago seems very different to today. It was a brutal loss of innocence as armies adapted to the techniques of modern warfare. Soldiering in a war of attrition, living in trenches protected by barbed wire, with artillery and machine guns dominating, seems very grim. The Pals battalions were hurt very badly, even sacrificed, at the opening of the Battle of the Somme, and many communities lost a generation of talented young men to tactics that were inappropriate. The Sheffield City Battalion was regarded as ‘two years in the making and two hours in the destroying’.
The project Echoes of the Great War is in homage to my great uncle William Wyatt Bagshawe and his friends in the Sheffield Pals. I started by photographing the frontline of the Somme at Serre where they died. ‘Uncle Willie’ was an artist who did mostly landscape subjects, and we have some of his work, including watercolours and etchings. Landscape photography has been my main subject for creative work since about 1983, and I prefer to work in black and white, with film, producing fine prints for exhibition. There is a gravity to black and white, and my work often leans towards metaphorical interpretation. The cutting of the crop of maize suggests the scything down of men as they advance into machine gun fire.
I wanted to photograph the land as it is now, suggesting the terrain of the frontline through details and abstractions. There are bits of trenches still left in the woods, but the land is ploughed over each year. I have photographed many of the cemeteries but don’t think it appropriate to include them in an exhibition. One image that has a strong resonance for me is by Roger Fenton of cannonballs lying in the valley in the Crimea where the Charge of the Light Brigade took place, taken many days after the action.
The ‘still life’ work of close ups of shrapnel, are from a collection found mostly at Serre. These small objects were lethal to people, flying out from an exploding shell, but had no effect destroying the steel barbed wire, or the German dug outs, which was their purpose in the barrage on the German frontline before the 1st July attack. One image looks like a flower as the lead ball has hit steel and changed shape, opening out like petals.
The colour prints taken at Redmires are of the area where the Sheffield Pals camped and trained, and are a new departure working digitally, but in the same contemplative way with a tripod and long exposures, pursuing the highest quality. The winter of 1914 at Redmires was bitterly cold with much snow, and the first casualty in the Pals was someone dying of pneumonia. I took pictures there under heavy snow in 2015 exactly 100 years on from the snow in 1915.
I have covered other parts of the frontline of the Western Front, including the Ypres Salient, and the Somme Front as it moved forward towards Baupame, and the conclusion in November 1916. Serre was never taken in battle as the Germans retreated tactically to the Hindenburg Line. The project is a result of over twenty years of research and picture making, and I hope to develop the ideas further.
See Echoes of the Great War – Photographs by Peter Cattrell at Weston Park Museum until Sunday 4 September.
Top: Peter Cattrell, Wire from Serre, Somme. Image © Peter Cattrell.
Bottom: Peter Cattrell, Maize Cutting at Serre. Image © Peter Cattrell
Peter Cattrell, Delville Wood. Image © Peter Cattrell.
Peter Cattrell, Towards Contalmaison. Image © Peter Cattrell.