In the days before instamatics and camera phones, there was the Vest Pocket Kodak, released in 1915 as a mass-produced, compact and lightweight camera.
It folded up to a size that is not much bigger than a modern mobile phone and led to a revolution in photography. It was cheap and mass-produced. The camera was sold at a price of just over £1, the equivalent of €100 today.
It was known as the “soldier’s camera” as many of those who fought in the first World War brought them to the front, though photography was strictly forbidden by the British war ministry.
Photographs taken with a Vest Pocket Camera, so called because it could fit into a vest pocket, form the centrepiece of a collaborative exhibition between Photo Museum Ireland and the National Museum of Ireland (NMI) in Collins Barracks.
Imaging Conflict will display 150 images and five original photograph books from NMI’s collection relating to the Irish revolutionary era of 1913–1923, as well as images of Irish men and women in conflicts overseas. The majority of the images have not been on public display before.
There are striking images of the Easter Rising taken by an unknown photographer. They show civilians strolling around the wrecked city centre of Dublin after the rebels surrendered. One shows people gazing at a shopfront on Moore Lane, where the rebels surrendered, riddled with machine gun bullets.
A section entitled Photographing Bodies, World War One does not shy away from the reality of war.
The emaciated corpse of Terence MacSwiney, who died on hunger strike in Brixton Prison in 1920, is shown along with a blurred photograph taken shortly before he died. It may have formed the basis of the “life mask” rather than the “death mask” which was taken of MacSwiney.
The famous photograph of Michael Collins on his death bed with a crucifix in his hand is in the exhibition. So too is a wide-angle photograph of the same scene. It shows a soldier standing sentry by his bed and looking with haunting intensity at the camera.
A particularly striking image is that of Mary Whelan, the mother of Thomas Whelan, posing as she waits outside Mountjoy Jail in 1921 for her son to be hanged by the British. The woman comforting her in the picture is Maud Gonne.
One soldier who brought his camera to the front in the first World War was Captain Francis Hitchcock of the Leinster Regiment. He captured striking images of the destruction of Ypres and also Guillemont, a village in the Somme which the Irish liberated in September 1916.
A unique exhibit is a fake British passport used by anti-Treaty rebel turned writer Ernie O’Malley. It was given to the NMI by O’Malley’s son, Cormac. Ernie O’Malley went by the name of Basil Edward Smyth, a British medical student.
“He didn’t want to go to the people he had just fought in the Free State and ask them for a passport,” his son explained. O’Malley was a medical student before he became a revolutionary.
NMI director Brenda Malone said the photographs in the collection give a different and more intimate perspective of the Irish revolution than other more formal photographs from the time.
“This is about the democratisation of photography. Anybody could take a photograph and capture any kind of truth that was going,” she said.