Photo trove brings World War I alive for Lexington teen
LEXINGTON — The images are by turns gripping and gruesome, stunningly clear photographs on tiny glass plates that show the carnage and mundane routines of the war that failed to end all wars.
They are a rare, compelling look at soldiers who fought in World War I, and they are coming to light through the curiosity and hard work of a Lexington High School junior who recovered the trove after years of storage in his home.
“What stands out for me is the destruction,” Renaud Le Donné, a 17-year-old, said of the images, an heirloom passed down from the family of a long-ago uncle from France who never returned from the war.
There is a biplane crashed in a field, its dead pilot slumped in the cockpit. There is a French soldier, dead in a trench, his legs blown away. A line of German prisoners is marched through another French trench. A village lies in ruins.
Le Donné, who is a first-generation American, recalled seeing them for the first time when he was 5 years old, about the same age his father had been when he first saw them.
“I was fascinated, like he had been,” Le Donné said.
Later, the images — stereograph plates of side-by-side pictures that formed an early version of three-dimensional photography — were stashed away for years. But Le Donné remembered them and brought the collection to photography class after teacher Samantha Lowe prodded students to search their homes for historical negatives.
Lowe was awestruck by Le Donné’s find.
“I had goosebumps when I saw these. They’re in impeccable condition for 100 years old,” Lowe said. “I’m surprised they’re not behind a glass case in the Smithsonian.”
Le Donné recently stood in the near-blackness of a photography darkroom at the high school, carefully moving from step to step as he created a 5- by 7-inch print from the image of a French trench in 1918.
“Pendant L’Attaque,” or “during the attack,” the photographer wrote on the side. A long line of French soldiers — anxious, coiled, ready for action — crouch in a roadside ditch on a sunny day. Several of them probably died or were wounded shortly afterward.
Le Donné said his father lived in Paris before immigrating to the United States, but the teenager doesn’t know whether the photographer knew his family.
He said he had only a rudimentary knowledge of World War I before he embarked on an independent project to print the images — about 125 — in the high school photo lab.
“I knew there were airplanes, they fought in trenches, and I knew there was a lot of life lost for a little land,” he said.
Now, from studying the photos, he knows much more about the brutal realities of a war that raged from 1914 to 1918.
Lowe speculated that the glass slides are the work of a war photographer who had been permitted to cross between lines. One photo, for example, shows German soldiers standing at attention in Berlin, far from the front lines in France and Belgium.
For Le Donné, the photos are from a time and place far removed from 21st-century suburban Boston.
Still, “it makes me feel proud,” said Le Donné, who is cocaptain of the school’s fencing club.
The photos also are making him adept at developing film, a technique that few people learn in this age. And they provide a chance for Lowe to study the stereograph technology of a century ago, in which two pictures were shot with the same camera at the same time of the same subject.
Lowe hopes that the photos will be exhibited after they are printed. Le Donné has completed about 40 prints in a project that benefits from Lexington High School’s large and popular photo lab.
Lowe is thrilled that her students, riveted by the images of the Western front, have been brought so close to history.
“I feel like it justifies my role as a photography educator to provide the space to bring these to life,” said Lowe, who has a waiting list of 300 pupils who want to learn the hands-on art of film photography.
“It becomes addictive to the students because they see the immediacy of their actions.” They get a sense of their influence.”
The photographs, particularly of the dead, also demand reflection on a grueling war that killed more than 16 million people, including 7 million civilians. As such, the images can be a learning tool about the value and transcience of human life.
“I want them to be respectful,” Lowe said as she looked at the dead pilot, “that this was the last moment of this soul’s life.”