England, Normandy & the Liberation of Paris

It’s hard to resist the lure of looking at old photographs, and I’ve just spent half an hour I didn’t really have looking at some rather different pictures about the 1944 Allied advance across the Channel and on to the liberation of Paris, taken by Life photographer Frank J. Scherschel (1907-81) who life sent with his Speed Graphic (or something rather similar he is holding in his Life portrait) to record the advances in colour.

It’s hard to know exactly why Life sent him, since apparently they used few if any of his images, which seldom show anything of the actual action, but certainly record its aftermath, with one whole series of images devoted to The Ruins of Normandy, and others in the series Before and After D-Day also showing more devastation.

But the pictures say more about the time, with a wonderfully evocative image, A small town in England in the spring of 1944, shortly before D-Day,  with the village trough framed between two trees, and the lane beyond leading towards tree-covered hills, a small row of cottages to the right, the odd house on the left. Unusually – particularly for colour at the time – the view is taken towards the sun (what used to be labelled contre-jour, the French term expressing some of the transgressive nature of the act, disregarding the standard advice to photographers of the time) and the colour suits the subject in a way that perhaps isn’t always the case in this series of pictures.

No details are given about the film used – my guess would be 4×5 Kodachrome – and the colour that is now produced from other images taken on this film at around the same time seems to me to be considerably better than that in contemporary publications. Scanning and digital correct can produce superior results, and also compensate for some of the ageing of the originals. There is a nice set of pictures on 4×5 Kodachromes taken by several photographers for the Office of War Information in the 1940s selected by Pavel Kosenko for his blog from the many available on the Shorpy site, which show the excellent quality that could be obtained, though some are better than others.

The ‘small town’ image was clearly taken with the camera on a tripod, and demonstrates the lack of lens coverage with the rising front, but the vignetting perhaps improves the image. A few of the other pictures are less technically precise, and the colour at times rather odd, perhaps because less effort has been put into correcting it and some may have been made on smaller film formats.

I’m not sure what some of those who took part in the Normandy landings would have made of Scherschel’s comment “We thought it was going to be murder but it wasn’t. To show you how easy it was, I ate my bar of chocolate. In every other operational trip, I sweated so much the chocolate they gave us melted in my breast pocket.” He made it about his photography of the invasion from the air (which isn’t in the set of images) and not about his experiences once he had joined the forces on the ground, as in the picture it is below, GIs search ruined homes in western France after D-Day, the closest we get in these pictures to seeing actual action.

Perhaps devastation wasn’t the image that Life wanted to show, but it is the strongest theme that runs through his images.  Looking at – for example – his pictures from Paris, I’m reminded of the many more powerful images in black and white taken at the time.  Some of the fascination of a few of Scherschel’s images for me is that they are in a way so ordinary, pictures taken slightly randomly by a bystander rather than an active mind interpreting the situation – and of course that they are in colour.

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