REVIEW: National WWI Museum – Snapshots (2021-2022)

A Museum exhibit at the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, MO

I actually went to Snapshots, a photography exhibit at the National WWI Museum in Kansas City, at the same time that I attended the virtual reality experience called War Remains. For whatever reason, I am just now getting around to doing a write-up about this, but thankfully the exhibit has not closed. Any of my local readers should have plenty of time to take a quick road trip over. The exhibit costs $6 to $10 depending on what age the attendee is, which is a decent bargain when it comes to limited-time exhibits these days.

“Faces and places frozen in time, snapped by both amateur and professional photographers, capture the resilience of humanity in the midst of the horrors of war. These photographs, sometimes blurred and grainy, bound into large albums or just solitary remnants, provide a tangible record of a fleeting moment in history that continues to shape the world we live in today. Prior to World War I, war photography was shot almost exclusively by professional photographers. Arduous and labor-intensive, it required hauling heavy equipment and creating prints onsite. That shifted in WWI. Technological advances and affordable costs allowed aspiring photographers with even modest means to own personal cameras. Their photographs chronicled more than just the devastation of war: they captured the unique, intimate perspectives of real people living moment to moment, helping shape the development of modern photojournalism.”

I was most interested in this exhibit because we often see film clippings and photographs of WWI, but it’s generally trenches or battle scenes (more on that later), and not the sort of typical candid photos that you just knew people were taking then. These photos are usually the sort of mundane slice of life material many look past when documenting a war, and for me it’s that much more interesting. When you see pilots smiling next to a plane, or a group of soldiers eating lunch, it hits home that these are just regular people trying to live their best life, sadly having to also be fed into a meat-grinder of human suffering.

I mentioned battle scenes up there, and the reason I wanted to come back was that most of the more noteworthy examples of battle scene photography are notorious frauds, usually staged photographs created when the coast was clear as to not endanger anyone involved. Some of these are laughably blatant, and other could trick a casual observer. One of my favorite areas was a quiz where you see a series of images and have to determine if they were staged or not, and how a historian can tell. This practice still happens today to a degree, whether people like it or not. For example, the famous scenes of Iraqi citizens yanking a statue of Saddam Hussein down in 2004 was basically egged on by journalists. It goes to show to potential power of photographers, and how their welding of public opinion can be a weapon of war itself.

In addition, the exhibit talks about the history of early 20th century photography as a whole – showcasing the transition from huge expensive silver-plate based rigs to relatively “portable” cameras and other equipment that moved the industry into the hands of everyone, not just photography studios. We see some of this equipment in the exhibit, we learn how photographers used it, and we see the shortfalls of certain practices. I felt like I learned a lot since I am by no means a learned photographer, nor have a really looked at the history of the artistic medium.

The only fault I saw with the exhibit was that there was no companion book available for purchase, something that usually accompanies such an exhibit at most museum engagements. Maybe in the future this will get released, as I feel such a publication would be both a valuable resource and a cool way for me to re-experience some of the better images.

I overall quite enjoyed my time at Snapshots. I did this and two other exhibits the same day, which is what I would recommend for pretty much everyone to maximize your time at the museum. While the main exhibit can easily eat up a bunch of time, Snapshots would be a good way to either finish that experience up, or couple with more “smaller” exhibits as I did. I actually visited the WWI museum three time back in September in order to get all of this in, and loved every second of it!

For more information, check out the exhibit’s official website HERE, it is still open until April of 2022.

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