Thursday, August 6, 2015

Armed with Cameras: Major James Barnes and the U.S. Signal Corps

Surprisingly little-remembered now, author/war correspondent/explorer and lecturer James Barnes played an important role when the U.S. Signal Corps was assigned to make official films and pictures of the American entry into World War I. A rare combination of Ernest Hemingway, Lowell Thomas and Richard Halliburton, Barnes not only was a prolific writer who produced 28 books and hundreds of short stories, he also headed the U.S. Signal Corps Photographic Division. As described in our book American Cinematographers in the Great Waramong the men Barnes first recruited as photographic officers were Edwin F. Weigle and Albert K. Dawson, cameramen who had gained first-hand experience as war reporters in Europe.

The original team of the U.S. Signal Corps Photographic Division: from left to right Captain Charles Betz, Lt. Edward Steichen, Lt. Edwin F. Weigle, Major James Barnes and Lt. Albert K. Dawson (Copied from Deutsch-Amerika, 15 September 1917)

Born in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1866, Barnes graduated from Princeton University and launced a succesful career in journalism. He served as a lieutenant in the First Battalion of the New York State Naval Militia during the Spanish-American War. Following six years as a war correspondent in South Africa and Venezuela, he became a literary editor specializing in books about American naval history. Commissioned Major in the Air Service of the Signal Corps in July 1917, Barnes was ordered to set up a new Photographic Division. Barnes had been head of the Princeton Flying School and he was a notable war correspondent, but his personal experience in photography was - as he admitted himself - extremely limited. The main reason why he was given the job seems to have been his coverage of an expedition across Africa in 1913-1914, together with Cherry Kearton, the famous British naturalist photographer and cinematographer.

Hard Time

As Barnes mentioned in his autobiography From Then Till Now (1934), the Photographic Division in these early days had a hard time setting up operations. The Division was seriously understaffed, but by September 1917 and with the assistance of the British two detachments of photographers had been sent to the European front and a program for camera production was laid out both for still photography and motion picture coverage. In 1918, Barnes was given charge of the U.S. School of Aerial Photography at Kodak Park in Rochester, New York. Under his supervision 25 officers were commissioned and about 300 American cameramen were sent overseas to the war zone. His contribution to the American films of World War I was in a word significant.

From 1918 until his death in 1936, James Barnes served as President of the Naval History Society. His life and work during World War I definitely merits further research.

Barnes' personal story on the U.S. Signal Corps Photographic Division can be read here at these pages from his autobiography.

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