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Latitudes

ECHOES FROM THE WESTERN FRONT

A Look at the Photography of MICHAEL ST. MAUR SHEIL

By Matthew Leeb

Summer 2014

On July 28th, 1914, after a hostile arms race between European Superpowers, Austria-Hungry declared war on Serbia, effectively catalyzing a four year war, forever scarring nations, families, and landscape: World War I. One hundred years have now passed and the only flesh left is that of the battlefields–Argonne, Lorraine, Flanders, and Verdun, among many others–still healing from the wounds of warfare. The grass has regrown but the trenches and craters remain, echoing cries of war from fallen men resting in its hallowed ground.

Eight years ago, revered landscape photographer, Michael St. Maur Sheil, took it upon himself to document these all but quiet fields. His project, Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace: 1914-1918 is now exhibited worldwide, inspiring new thought on the First World War.

Matthew Leeb: What inspired you to begin this project?

Michael St. Maur Sheil: Simply a realization that the centenary of the First World War was fast approaching and I felt that a re-examination of the landscapes where the war had taken place might be of interest.

ML: How long did it take you to research and shoot the locations?

MSMS: I really cannot say how long it took to research as really that has just been a continual process, but my records show that I have been away from home for 438 days since 2006.

ML: When you arrived at a battlefield for the first time, what was your impression seeing it firsthand in contrast to one you’d developed from your research?

MSMS: A French officer, Raymond Jubert wrote in his book Verdun 1916:

“A battlefield today is just a field like any other; it’s just something to be turned over. Its soil is ploughed more deeply than in other fields; it’s furrows aren’t straight; you have to look very closely to get any idea of the corpses it holds.”

For me a battlefield is just that: dead bodies, the debris of war which reflect the pain and the hurt. One hundred years later, time and nature have erased those scars and one is simply standing in a field where once a battle took place. For me this is a very important difference and really the heart of the project. Obviously I want to reflect upon the events which happened there, but at the same time I think it important that we learn from the landscape where time and nature have healed the wounds in the same way once warring nations are now allies.

ML: Was there a battlefield that was exceptionally difficult to find or shoot?

MSMS: Most of the shooting problems are self-inflicted! I like working with different light, in bad weather, so shots are really whatever I choose to make them.

The hardest ones to shoot are those which are just a plain flat field: most landscape photographers are starting with places which have an intrinsic natural beauty. I have to go with the history which takes me to a place where I then have to work with the light to try and create a strong and meaningful image.

The shots in the Vosges–where temperatures reached -25C–were pretty rough and the high mountains of the Dolomites were quite hard. I am in my late ’60s so lugging gear for 8 hrs. at a time over rough ground is losing its allure.

ML: Do you yourself have a family connection to the First World War?

MSMS: Not really–my grandfather was a “dug-out” Major: invalided out of the army after the Boer War. He served as a training Major in WW1.

ML: Is there a date set for a New York showing?

MSMS: I wish that there were but as this exhibition is designed as a free-to-view street gallery, open to all 24/7, we are totally reliant upon sponsorship to enable us to achieve our objective of introducing the subject of the First World War to the public in general. Sadly I have not been able to find any sponsor for a show in New York so at this time whilst I would clearly love to exhibit in New York, I do not have the financial means to do so.

Michael St. Maur Sheil is a photographer. His series Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace: 1914-1918 documents the current state of World War I battlefields.

LINKS:

Fields of Battle – Lands of Peace: 1914-1918 Official Site

Written by Matthew Leeb

Photography by and Courtesy of Michael St. Maur Sheil

Design by Francesca Rimi

Captions:

Photography by and Courtesy of Michael St. Maur Sheil

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