Saturday, November 3, 2007

The World War in Photographs by Otto Kurth

When I was a child I digested a steady diet of Big Little Books published in the late 1960’s by the Whitman Publishing Company in Wisconsin. Big Little Books are sized approximately 5 by 5 inches and about an inch thick. They are fully illustrated stories whose subjects were based around cartoon characters (Bugs Bunny, Road Runner) TV series (Bonanza, Man from U.N.C.L.E.) radio programs (Dick Tracy, Roy Rogers) and a whole host of other topics. These books represented my earliest reading experiences and I relish remembering how engrossed I could become in the stories while reading them sunk deep into a blue vinyl bean bag chair.

One of the series that I did not have, mostly because it was published in 1934, is a Big Little Book called The World War in Photographs. Arranged and edited by Otto Kurth, it was inspired by Laurence Stallings’ collection of World War 1 photographs titled The First World War: A Photographic History. This book and Stallings’ feature many of the same images.

The World War in Photographs contains 190 images over 160 pages. They show obvious aspects of war with the exception of many images of dead soldiers. This is understandable as this is a book in a series that was aimed at children aged 6-12. It is also fairly interesting to note that of the images of dead soldiers that appear, two are of American dead and one of German dead. This is an American book, but it is far from sharing the same current censorship regarding showing dead American soldiers. Also the fact that the US lost fewer troops (78,000) than any other country that participated in WWI makes the choice of showing those pictures even more intriguing to me. The book’s coverage of the Russian involvement (2 ¾ million dead) seems to be all of one page with two photos captioned The Czar’s Subjects. One shows a line of men on horseback and the other, one artillery gun being towed behind a horse cart..

Much is shown of the destruction of towns and cities, refugees and lots of images of soldiers and the technology that fought the war. Each photo has an accompanying caption that appears just below the image. The captions, usually fewer than 15 words, greatly reduce the intended photo content down to the bare basics. There are no photo credits specified anywhere in the book.

The first page gives a 150 word ‘Brief Story of the World War (1914-1918)' and the last two pages give an account of ‘The Cost in Men and Money.’ The reproductions are rough as could be expected for a mass produced book aimed at children. The charm of the book comes from its size and from the thick paper stock and its surface texture. As these usually wound up in the hands of children, it is hard to find copies that do not suffer greatly from condition problems.

I think the Whitman Publishing Company should have done a Big Little Book on Vietnam for my g-g-generation...or if they were still in business, a Big Little Book of Iraq. Just a little reading material to give the youngsters today a glimpse at what they can look forward to when they grow up.

Book Available Here (The World War in Photographs)


Anonymous said...

I'm astonished there are any pictures of dead soldiers at all. Seems strong stuff for 6-12 year-olds. I have a hard enough time answering "what do soldiers do" to my 3 year-old when we read Richard Scarry's "Things That Go" and we get to the page with all the tanks. Makes you think maybe we were a hardier stock back then.

Anonymous said...

Been loving the blog! Wanted to clarify one point that may be of interest. I've photographed extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan the last few years and have unfortunately been witness to the deaths of several american soldiers. I photographed these events in a way that obscured the identity of the soldiers, while still being unsparing about the severity of their injuries. The Army allowed the photos to be released without comment. I showed them around to major magazines and newspapers (all of which have previously published my war coverage), but there was no interest. In my experience, the censorship has been at the hands of the media, rather than the military. I know several other photographers that find themselves in the same disappointing position. A sad situation indeed.

Anonymous said...


This book does have a tone that doesn't always seem appropriate for children. The photos of bodies are relatively obscured by the printing and general description, leaving them more as impressions of death rather than what can be seen today or even by Matthew Brady.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the information.

What I find so offensive, as you probably do, is that we often just see the same impression of war repeated over and over again. Our heads are filled with stored images of war that it is hard to avoid having new images just blend with the older more familiar and become diluted into the same cliches and over simplification. 'War is hell' is the common understanding and preconceived notion depicted in much of the images today. We see troops doing their job (we may pity them or see them as victims and because of their sacrifice of life or the mental toll we may see them as heroes at the same time) and then we (media, powers that be) do not want to see the dirty part.

This creates an impression of abstract costs of war. I do not like seeing bodies and in some ways I am offended when I see them constantly showing up in photos by the journalists at work (in books their appearance is much more common) but the direct attempt to sanitize war is a bigger offense. I do not think we need our papers and magazines smeared in blood but if we are to face what is happening, I think there should be doses of it.

Learning to show it beyond shock (which we immediately insulate ourselves against when we see such images) and in meaningful ways is what photojournalists need to interject into the public record. How that is done, I haven't a clue.

Thank you and I wish you luck and safety in you pursuits.

Anonymous said...

I agree strongly with your thoughts on this one. While I too photograph the same 'war is hell' hallmarks (when you're in the thick of things, none of it feels nearly so trite as when trying to appraise an edit down the road), over time I became more focused on war's contradictions, especially how expressions of love and humanity can be as dominant as fear, grief, and loss.

Unfortunately, the nuances of war are pretty impossible to place in the mass media, despite the seeming glut of images. This has been difficult to accept, as my decision to photograph these wars came from my attachment to the transformative power of the Vietnam war icons, which found ready hosts in the dominant magazines of the time. Anyhow, there is much to be said on this topic but I'll stop here.

Thanks again for your fantastic blog. As a lover of photography books, I read it every time there is a new posting. If you're interested in some of the less revealed realities, please check out these sites with my work.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to add if it isn't obvious, I am speaking from the stand point of not ever having experienced photographing being in constant danger and under such extreme stress. So my observations on this subject can sound rather trivial being without that experience.
My curiosities lie in trying to understand how those photographs work and how they are digested by people.

Galen Kurth said...

Otto Kurth actually did the layout and a lot of the captions for the Stallings WWI book. He was allowed to use the "leftover" photos and apparently some of the same material for the "Big Little" book as sort of additional compensation for his work. The purpose, if you will, was always to show the horror and stupidity of the war, within the bounds of what was considered acceptable at the time. Pretty tame stuff by today's standards, when kids are exposed to a constant diet of VERY graphic mayhem in all media.

Anonymous said...

I have a copy of The World War 1934
edition. I found it going through my grandfathers stamp collection. I also have hundreds of photographs he took personally while in the war. Mainly of the destruction throughout Europe. Are either the book or pictures worth anything? I'm trying to raise money to save my grandmother's home for her, since my grandfather had past on not to long ago, I'm all she has left. She has also out lived all 3 children one being my father who was her last surviving child. If you have any information that may help me I'd greatly appreciate it. You can email me Thanks Dawn B