The title of my project, A War Without Blood and Gore, comes from a line in a Vietnam War-era protest song by the American singer-songwriter Phil Ochs entitled “Draft Dodger Rag”. It goes: “If they ever give a war without blood and gore, I’ll be the first to go.”
I photographed World War II reenactors at events organized for the public in 2014 and 2015, as well as aboard a restored 1944 Liberty Ship wartime freighter – a time frame that roughly paralleled the 70th anniversary of the last year of the war.
They used as many authentic period artefacts as possible – weapons, vehicles, uniforms, etc. – to recreate the lives of the soldiers, sailors and aviators who fought in the Second World War. Through displays and demonstrations, they bring to life the history of the war to generations who were born decades after the defeat of Germany and Japan.
Most of the reenactors were men in their 20s and 30s, although there were some women and children dressed in “home front” period clothes or in the uniforms of various women’s military branches; many of them told me of hearing the stories of grandparents who’d been in the war. I got a sense of their longing for those “good” years, for a simpler time, when there was a sharp delineation between good and evil. World War II was perceived as the last war that the U.S. decisively won, when the entire country pulled together in a common existential struggle.
The reenactors were very knowledgeable about the World War II period and happy to answer questions. While some got into the personas of individual combatants, others reenacted particular units or divisions. They gave various reasons for reenacting: some wanted to pay homage to the war’s veterans and their sacrifices; others were living history buffs who wanted to bring a past era to life for modern audiences. I also suspected that a number of them liked the camaraderie, the chance to camp out and to fire off guns with blank ammunition in a harmless and more or less socially-acceptable way.
It was unsettling to see German uniforms, some of them with SS collar tabs. However, these German-uniformed reenactors assured me that they didn’t share the philosophy or have any admiration for the Nazis; they felt that somebody had to be the enemy.
I photographed the reenactors with cameras that are very similar to those used during World War II and black and white film that I process and print myself. I have been using traditional equipment and materials both for the classic look that they give and for their archival qualities. I believe that, in many ways, this project documenting reenactors reflects the present United States, with all of its ambivalences and uncertainties, as much as it recreates the vanished world of the 1940s.
Technical Notes: The cameras that I used were a 35mm Leica M4P with 35mm Summicron lens, and a Fuji 645 120 camera with a fixed 60mm lens. For the most part, the films that I used were Kodak Tri-X and Ilford HP5+ rated at EI 320, with some Ilford Delta 3200, EI 1600 as well. Film was processed in Kodak HC110, mostly Dilution H (1:63) and some (the Delta 3200) in Dilution B (1:31).
~ Paul Margolis
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