A man and his camera: William Barker’s First World War snapshots

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The portable camera revolutionised the act of photography, taking it from the hands of studio professionals like Montréal’s famous Notman Studio and allowing the average person to take snapshots, documenting the events of their life. Marketed for the first time in 1888 by George Eastman, and perfected by him as the Kodak Brownie camera in 1900, the simplified camera would find its way to the front also, despite the rules surrounding photography. In the hand of civilian soldiers like William James Barker, the Brownie camera would be used to show scenes of the soldiering life, providing visual evidence of their time at war. 

Private William James Barker was an electrician before the war and enlisted with the 4th Battalion (Central Ontario) in September 1914. It appears that when he left his home in  Southend, Ontario to enlist at Valcartier he took his Brownie camera with him, probably to document his “great adventure”. The collection of remaining photographs that we have is very small, only 17 photographs, but they span the entire length of Barker’s time in the CEF, from his enlistment in 1914 to his demobilisation in 1919. The slide show gallery above this post shows photographs from training in Canada, several shots from France and shots from the troop transport ships that brought the men of the CEF to England in 1915, across the channel and home again in 1919.

Though many of Barker’s photographs are over exposed or show only partial scenes, but they still have incredible historical value today. These are not official war photographs and were not taken to show scenes of the war, but rather show Barker’s comrades at rest and during transport as they posed awkwardly and waited for their fates.  Of the group of 17, only two have notations on the back, the rest are unknown faces, maybe even Barker’s own if he lent his camera to someone else to take a portrait. The voyage back to Canada of these photographs is a mystery as well. He may have simply stored away the rolls of used film until his return to Canada, or perhaps some of them were developed while on leave and mailed to his family and friends. At this point, we probably will never know.

Private Barker was one of the lucky ones. He stayed with the 4th Battalion throughout 1915 and 1916, probably fighting with them during the spring battles of 1916, at Mount Sorrel, and later at the Somme.  He would survive the battle of Vimy Ridge in April 1917 before being transferred to the headquarters staff of the Canadian Corps in June 1917. From that point on, Barker had what was known as a “bomb-proof” job, working first at Corps headquarters and later at the 2nd Canadian Divisional Headquarters. Miraculously, Barker remained in good health throughout the war as well, never having any hospital record. He returned to Canada in 1919 and was discharged at the district depot in Hamilton. Barker died in 1954, at age 64.

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