I sometimes use this blog to show items from my collection other than magic lantern slides and Victorian optical toys. This is one of those occasions.
For many years in the 1980s / 90s, I advertised in the ‘Wanted’ column of ‘Exchange and Mart’ (remember that, does it still exist?) for magic lantern slides. This would result in long journeys to look at and buy people’s treasured collections that, at the time, nobody wanted. Often, the discussion would include a ”Are you interested in this as well?” moment. One such visit led to the purchase of a group of forty, Second World War photographs, taken in North Africa between August 1942 and January 1943.
The delightful ‘old soldier’ they belonged to was really pleased that they were going to a good home, as no-one in his family had shown any interest in them, and he later sent me a letter explaining the background story. They were taken by a professional photographer who traveled with the 8th Army in its journey west from the Battle of El Alamein through Egypt and Libya, culminating in the capture of Tripoli.
He said that photos like these were purchased by the troops as momentoes. Each of them has a serial number on the back with a hand-written caption. Presumably, thousands were sold and, as such, they may be relatively common, even today. On the other hand, perhaps they were only sold to those directly involved, within hours of the action. I simply don’t know. If the latter, the concept of selling personalised souvenir photos, actually on the battlefield, is an interesting one. Was this a purely commercial venture similar to the beach photographers of the time or a source of extra income for official war photographers?
My main interest is the Victorian era, especially its imagery, entertainments and showmen but social history photographs from later periods, such as these, are equally fascinating. We can look into the eyes of those who were there and try to imagine their thoughts and feelings as they look at the camera.