Review by Paul Anderson •
Images in Transition, Wirephotos 1938 – 1945 presents artistic interpretations of wartime wirephotos from the second world war. Wirephoto technology was used to transmit black and white photographs from the war-front back to media centers, in this case located in the United States. Stephen Wirtz collected these wirephotos, and at the suggestion of David Pace they have been transformed into dramatic and often disturbing pieces of art. The resulting images can be appreciated individually or viewed as a curated sequence.
Mark Murrmann wrote the book’s introduction, which includes a description of the authors’ artistic process and an extensive critique of their work. Reading this introduction is a must, for it provides the necessary background on the use of wirephotos during World War II. There are sixty image plates that present the altered wirephotos, and an associated index. A sampling of seven original (untouched) wirephotos are included towards the back of the book, providing a reference point for the seven associated plates. In the afterward is an interesting three-page description of wirephoto transmission technology and history.
All images are low in resolution and sharpness, being fundamentally limited by the wirephoto transmission technology of the time. Many of the images have been heavily retouched by the military or the media, presumably prior to being transmitted. In some cases, this was done to preserve contrast in areas that would be degraded by transmission. In others, this was probably completed for propaganda purposes.
Mark Murrmann, in his introduction, notes that Stephen Wirtz’ “… initial interest lay in the original photos themselves, not necessarily in transforming them into art.” However, the genius behind this work was the later realization by the authors that these images could become fine art. There was a story to be told, and it was extracted by both of them through creative graphics editing.
The end result is a grouping of graphic, blurry, grainy images that are austere and haunting, like a dream gone bad. It is interesting that the indistinct nature of these images creates a distance in time and space between the viewer and the scene. The transformation from an original wartime photograph to a transmitted wirephoto and now to a present-day work-of-art is the genesis of the book’s title, Images in Transition.
To review some of these plates, we look first at numbers 16 and 32. These images are appreciated for their composition and story. Both are cold snowy scenes of troops on the move through the wartime countryside. The soldiers on Plate 32 are particularly poignant, moving as a huddled mass through the very background of the scene, fenceposts bearing witness.
Plate 18 is less representational, showing airplane shadows over cauliflower-like camouflaged Japanese barges in New Guinea. The image takes on an interesting abstract quality. The original wirephoto is included in the back of the book and can be compared directly with Plate 18. The authors chose to include only about one fourth of the original image and emphasized the transmission artifacts.
Finally, Plate 46 presents us with the haunting and powerful image of a lone soldier walking through the smoking ruins of May-sur-Orne in Normandy.
This book is an interesting collection of historical images and a demonstration of how images can be reimagined to provide new perspectives.
Images in Transition – Wirephotos 1938 – 1945, David Pace &Stephen Wirtz
Artists: David Pace (resides in San Francisco) & Stephen Wirtz (resides in Northern California)
Essay: Mark Murrmann
Publisher: Schilt Publishing, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, copyright 2019
Hardcover, 86 pages, 60 black & white plates, printing by Offizin Scheufele GmbH, Stuttgart, Germany
Book design: Victor Levie
Plate 16: Russian Air Sled Attachment, March 23, 1942
Plate 18: Allied Bombers, August 6, 1943
Plate 32: On the March, January 15, 1944
Plate 46: May-sur-Orne, August 15, 1944