Photographs from the summer and early fall of 1917 include grim-faced soldiers tiptoeing across mud-spanning duckboards or marching past destroyed trees, as well as images of the crumbled Cloth Hall, the very building where they’re now on display. Yet Hurley felt that his photographs didn’t adequately capture the intensity of Passchendaele, and so he started to combine multiple negatives into single images of hellish drama.
A stunning large photograph of men charging out of the trenches is made up from 12 separate images; the planes above the soldiers’ heads were, however, photographed in the Middle East. Such trickery was commonplace in early war photography, and indeed many of the most famous war photographs — Mathew Brady’s images of Civil War casualties, or Robert Capa’s falling soldier of the Spanish Civil War — were posed or otherwise doctored.
Elsewhere, three different exhibitions in “1917: Total War in Flanders” take an ecological view of the war. The most substantial of these is “Passchendaele: Landscape at War,” at a villa next door to the Memorial Museum Passchendaele, in the town of Zonnebeke. The low-lying fields outside regularly flooded before the epic rains of 1917, and Allied artillery obliterated the battlefield even before the infantry arrived. In this new landscape, evoked through maps, petrified trees and unnerving photographic projections, even the trenches were not safe, and this show persuasively argues that ecological ruin had psychological effects.
“Passchendaele: Landscape at War” prepares the visitor for the museum’s eerie permanent exhibition, which swears off the In Flanders Fields Museum’s modern museology for uncanny dioramas. Cases of…