Monday, May 15, 2017

Close Up: Albert Dawson Training War Photographers (November 1917)

In the collection of the National Archives we recently found a fascinating series of pictures featuring Albert K. Dawson who was captured while he was training the first official World War I cameramen in the United States in the art of war photography. These pictures were all taken in November 1917 shortly after Dawson had been commissioned a Captain in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.



Captain Albert K. Dawson (left) and Signal Corps photographers, November 1917. Soldiers learning to sight with 4x5 Graflex camera. Photograph copyrighted Brown & Dawson.


Born in Vincennes, Indiana, Albert K. Dawson (1885-1967) was one of the most enterprising cameramen of the First World War. Shortly after the outbreak of the Great War he went to Europe and filmed with the German army on the Western Front. In the summer of 1915 he joined the Austro-Hungarian forces during the attack on Russian Poland. He later covered the Bulgarian army in the Balkans. Dawson's movies were released in the United States by the American Correspondent Film Company in 1915-1916. We have described his film adventures in more detail in our books American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014), as well as Shooting the Great War: Albert Dawson and the American Correspondent Film Company (2013).

Training the first official US photographers

From Photographers Association News, December 1917

Because of his recent experiences as a combat photographer Dawson was assigned to train the first official US cameramen. Before these photographers were sent to Europe Dawson gave them a crash course in still and motion picture photography. The Signal Corps had a slow and difficult start with this military photography program. It wasn't until January 1918 that at Columbia University a professional staff was set up for the first school of military photography and cinematography. From November 1917 Dawson trained his recruits at Washington Barracks and the photographs that we found were all taken at this location. At this stage of the war Dawson had been promoted to Captain and as supervising officer he was assigned to the War College in Washington, D.C, where he was in charge of the Signal Corps photographic laboratory, handling the screening of all war-related pictures from France that were shot by military cameramen in the field.

Graflex and Kodak camera training

The photographs that we found seem to have been taken for the Commitee on Public Information, America's wartime propaganda agency. These pictures show Dawson teaching his soldiers how to sight with Graflex and Kodak roll-film cameras. The photographs all have a "Brown & Dawson" copyright, the photographic firm that he worked for. There is also an interesting picture in this collection, showing one of his recruits learning how to handle a 3A Kodak camera. The copyright reference on this picture has Dawson's personal handwriting. Another picture has an interesting reference to the U.S. Engineer's School of Photography at Washington Barracks. Apart from the Signal Corps the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also sent soldiers to Washington Barracks for instructions in photography, as part of a course in military topography. Dawson may also have trained engineers at this place.

As mentioned before in an earlier weblog, the National Archives is doing a terrific job digitizing its World War I collection and as a result these gems from the past are now available for the public just by accessing their website. Apart from Dawson and his squad of Signal Corps cameramen, this picture file at the National Archives also has a number of interesting shots showing American military cameramen training in aerial photography during World War I.

We have uploaded these pictures featuring Dawson and his cameramen on our Flickr photo channel.


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