Close Assault at Camp Mabry

One of the things I try to make a point to do over the Memorial Day weekend is to pay a visit to Camp Mabry, where a WWII Reenactment always takes place. It's always a sobering experience for me as this small bit of living history brings to mind the tremendous sacrifice made by our military for the sake of the freedoms we get to enjoy. It's not about glorifying war. It's about recognizing the price paid by too many of our soldiers.

While the mock battle between US and German troops is the highlight of the event for many people, I more enjoy wandering around among the troop camps, talking with the reenactors, and getting some candid shots as they prepare for the battlefield. These guys take their roles seriously and if you hang around in the background, you'll catch some war faces.

All images were captured with a Fujifilm X-T2 and 50-140mm lens using the Acros film simulation. More photos from the event can be found on my gallery site.

Close Assault at Camp Mabry

Every Memorial Day weekend the Texas Military Forces Museum Living History Detachment at Camp Mabry puts on a series of WWII reenactments. I enjoy attending these exhibitions and taking a few photos for the reenactment troops. There is always a special emphasis on reminding those in attendance of the reality of warfare and the tremendous costs in human life in the fight to preserve the freedoms we enjoy. The folks who stage these events do so not to glorify war but rather to tell the stories of historic battles in an immersive history lesson. While there is an exciting battle recreation to watch, I'm always more moved by the traditional tribute at the end of the program where we remember those who gave all they had to give in service to our country. 

In memory of our heroes, Memorial Day 2016.

Veterans Day

The Living History Detachment of the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry stages several WWII Reenactments a year around the Memorial Day and Veterans Day holidays. I make it a point to attend and document these events with my camera. Some might find it odd to stage depictions of war. Those who participate in these events do so not to glorify war. Rather, they go to great lengths to educate on its harsh realities and the cost of the freedoms that we enjoy due to the sacrifices made by our veterans. Many of the living historians who participate have served in the military and consider it an honor to share the story and history of WWII. 

My goal in photography at these events is two-fold. For one, I try to accurately capture the characters and battles in a manner that gives the images plausibility. My shots are composed to isolate the scenes and remove any hints of a modern time period if possible. Secondly, I try to capture the humanity of actors in their characters - their emotional responses, long stares, the war faces. Some of those are backed by real memories of service. It's my way of honoring our veterans. To those who have served, thank you.

More images from the event are here.

Close Assault - The Book

I've been taking photos at WWII reenactment events at Camp Mabry for a few years now. After accumulating a good number of images I have decided that it is finally time to do something special with them. My main reason for shooting at these events is to give something back to these guys. Owning and caring for genuine period uniforms, weaponry, and vehicles is really expensive and nobody pays these folks to present these programs. These people do what they do because they are passionate about presenting living history lessons. It's not about running around with guns and glorifying war. It's about educating the public about the harsh realities of war and the tremendous sacrifices that are made in defense of freedom. 

I have put some of my favorite images from the Close Assault WWII reenactment events into a small book. It is a 44 page paper back. I've donated several copies to the Texas Military Forces Museum for sale in their gift shop so that they can use the proceeds to help fund programs like Close Assault. The book is also for sale online. I will donate all profit from online sales of the book to the museum either directly in cash or I will use the profits to purchase more copies of the books to donate for sale at the museum. Either way, I'm not making a cent - all the money goes to supporting living history programs at Camp Mabry. 

A number of people have asked me about purchasing my images in books and I'm happy to finally have something available. Please consider picking up a copy and supporting the living history program at Camp Mabry. I'd sure appreciate it and I know the great people of the Living History Detachment would as well. Just click the link below to purchase. Thanks!

Close Assault

By Michael Connell

44 pages, published 8/25/2015

Photos from the Close Assault WWII Reenactment events at Camp Mabry in Austin, TX. These events are put on by the Texas Military Forces Museum's Living History Detachment. This book includes portraits and battle photos.

Close Assault - Memorial Day Weekend at Camp Mabry 2015

It has become customary for me to spend some time at Camp Mabry on Memorial Day weekend photographing their Close Assault WWII Reenactment. The actual battle reenactment is brief at this event. The focus is on giving a living history lesson by discussing the weapons, gear, tactics, and conditions of the battlefield in the war against Germany. I'm always amazed at the effort these reenactors put into staging historically accurate events like this. They do so at their own expense (and it is VERY expensive). They do this not to glorify war. They do it to educate and remind folks of the realities of war and the great sacrifices that it demands. 

Memorial Day weekend is a time when Americans get to enjoy a 3 day weekend with friends and family. It is easy to forget that the reason this holiday exists is for we as country to take a day to reflect and remember the countless lives that were lost in defense and preservation of the freedoms we cherish. The most powerful moment at Campy Mabry's reenactment events for me is always the close of the program. The troops line up to offer a salute and a moment of silence for their country's fallen soldiers. War is a terrible thing but sometimes it becomes a necessity. We hope that when we fight it is for a just cause. We hope that out of the destructiveness of war that a greater good is achieved. When we fight, one thing is certain. Many will go to battle - too many will not return. It is those who gave everything they had to give that we remember on Memorial Day.

While the battle reenactment at Campy Mabry is the highlight for many in attendance, I am there to mingle with the troops as inconspicuously as possible. These folks take their roles seriously and I don't want to interfere with their portrayals. I strive to see and capture those moments when the reenactors are lost in their characters - the battle stares, the looks of concentration as plans and safety rules are recalled, the attentiveness to preparations of uniforms, weapons, and vehicles. Those "war faces" if you will.

Images were captured with a Fujifilm XT-1 and XF 55-200mm lens. Full image gallery from the event is here.

Guns of 1863

This past weekend I got to attend "Guns of 1863" a Civil War reenactment event at Camp Mabry in Austin. Anyone who follows my work knows that I'm fond of photographing the WWII events at this National Guard base. This was my first time attending a Civil War event. As always, the focus was on presenting an accurate living history lesson. Attendees were educated on the uniforms, flags, weapons, and musical instruments used on the battlefields of this dark time in American history. I learned a number of things about the Civil War myself. The facts and statistics about the loss of life was staggering. What a horrific period. These events are held by the Texas Military Forces Museum's Living History Detachment not to glorify war but to educate and remind us of its cost and consequences.

While many people come to see a battle reenactment, my favorite part these events is always wandering amongst the reenactors and looking for those moments that they are immersed in their characters. These people take their roles as living historians seriously and at great personal sacrifices of time and expense. As my way of saying thanks for what they do, here are some of the "war faces" of the Civil War as seen in 2015 at Camp Mabry. My full gallery of images from the event can be viewed here.

Images were captured with a Fujifilm X-T1 and XF 55-200mm lens, Classic Chrome simulation.

Camp Mabry Muster Day 2015

Anyone who follows my work knows that I love taking photos at WWII reenactments. There are a few events held each year at Camp Mabry in Austin. "Muster Day" is the largest event of the year and a huge crowd gathers at the base for a variety of activities and reenactments. I can be found hanging out in the US and German camps looking for moments of the living historians immersed in their roles - the "war faces" as I call them. The battle reenactment is the main attraction for most folks but I usually find my favorite photos off the battle field. Here are some of my favorite images of the reenactment troops. As I've talked about before, I shoot with longer focal lengths and try to stay detached from the action to allow these folks to remain focused on their roles in the reenactment. My full gallery of shots, including battle scenes, can be found here.

I would hope that it would go without saying that these events and my documentation of them absolutely do not serve to glorify war. War is a terrible thing and WWII was a horrific time in human history. These reenactments are staged to educate and remind us all of the costs of the freedoms we hold dear. I believe it is essential that we continue to tell the stories lest we forget. 

Mixing Film and Digital at Muster Day

I recently attended the annual open house and "Muster Day" activities at Camp Mabry in Austin. It has become a regular thing for me to go out and take pictures of the WWII reenactors at these events. The men and women who put the war reenactments on do so at great personal expense in time and dollars. I think it is an important way to communicate history and taking photos for these folks is my way of giving back a little.

I usually try and get at least a somewhat authentic period look to my photos.  In fact, I shot most images this year with black and white film. I took 3 cameras with me this time around: a Leica IIIf, a Canon AE-1, and a Fujifilm X-E1. The Leica is a fairly recent acquisition of mine and I took it for a more period looking camera. Although my IIIf dates at 1952, it looks a lot like the IIIa or IIIc cameras that might have been carried by some during that era. I had a 50mm Elmar lens of 1938 vintage attached. The Canon had a cheap Vivitar zoom attached and my X-E1 was equipped with a 60mm XF lens.  I used Kodak TRI-X in the Leica and the Canon.  It is becoming my favorite general purpose B&W film - very versatile and looks great. The X-E1 was configured to capture B&W JPEGs.

My intention was to shoot primarily with the Leica and I did - sort of. Due to my lack of experience with this old camera, I messed up and didn't get it loaded correctly the first time. In my excitement of capture pictures of the troops, I went through a whole roll's worth of shots that didn't get recorded since the film wasn't advancing. I should have caught that.  Foolish, painful mistake that I'm betting I don't repeat any time soon. What shots I did get were wonderful. The Elmar lens is sharp and contrasty - amazing image quality for its age.  Stopped down a bit and focused carefully it is every bit as sharp as the modern macro lens that I used on my X-E1.

The lens that I used on the Canon AE-1 is not the greatest. The majority of film era zooms, particularly the moderately prices models, are not known for the best image quality. This Vivitar is very difficult to focus and flares easily. Still, if focus is achieved and the light is right it isn't bad.  I mainly used it for battle field shots but I did get a few decent candid portraits with it.  Those are the shots that are the most rewarding for me.  While the excitement of the battle with explosions and gun fire is fun to watch and photograph, it is the moments before that when the reenactors are getting in character and donning their "war faces" that I find the most interesting to capture.

The camera and lenses I used spanned a period of about 70 years of technology. As I look at the images, the differences in the analog and digital captures are not so great - at least not in black and white.  Still, there is something about film that just looks and feels right. Perhaps I'm waxing nostalgic but digital captures are a little sterile compared with the tonality and imperfections of film.  There are certainly advantages to digital but film is more rewarding and endearing, especially for this sort of subject matter. I mixed the shots from the various cameras up a bit through this post.  Can you tell which is which?

The troops of the Camp Mabry Living History Detachment will be back in action for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend. If you're in the Austin area, it's sure to be a great time and you might just learn something about history.  I plan to be out there shooting some more film now that I've gotten a better handle on that Leica!

War Faces

Over Memorial Day weekend recently, I stopped by the Close Assault WWII reenactment at Camp Mabry in Austin.  The reenactment portrayed a battle with Nazi Germany, taking place in 1944.  A reenactment is not a glorification of war, but rather a living history lesson.  The reenactors did a great service to the community by sharing military history.  These individuals make great personal and financial sacrifices to present an accurate visual representation of the battle conditions our soldiers faced during WWII.

I've attended and photographed this event before.  This year I decided to take a little different approach in my photography.  Last year, my primary goal was to get battle pictures.  This time around, I chose to focus more on the individuals in their character roles.  I tried to keep the shots candid and unposed.  When you point a camera at someone, assuming he or she doesn't mind being photographed, you always run the risk of a deliberate pose.  That is not what I wanted.  These reenactors were out there to perform a role and it was within the context of that role that I wanted to capture them.  In their minds, for the purpose of this exhibition. they were back in 1944 and I wanted the camera to reflect that.

I made one more change from last year.  After a bit of research, I found some period photos in color.  Kodachrome color film was around during the war, although it wasn't used much because it was a slow film at ASA 8 or 10.   There is a certain connection I feel that is made through color photographs of the period, like looking through the window of time.  I decided to process my character stills in color, as close to the Kodachrome look as I could get.  I used a Lightroom preset provided by X-Equals and I made some adjustments.  I mainly wanted the color and tone and I decided to not attempt to replicate film grain or print age.  I am not a film expert but I did look at some samples from the period and I believe this is a reasonably close representation, with modern clarity.

Without further ado, let me share some of images of the men of G Company, part of the Living History Detachment of the Texas Military Forces Museum at Camp Mabry.  One of the things that struck me about these guys is how seriously they take their roles.  There was a look of concentration on their faces as they prepared for their performance.  Their weapons shoot blanks only but there are still dangers on the mock battlefield, not the least of which is a Sherman tank roaring across the field!  These guys must stay focused to be in the right place at the right time for their safety.  They also have a responsibility to make sure their audience is safe during the reenactment.

Putting on a demonstration like this is a lot of work.  These guys sacrifice their time and financial resources to put on these reenactments.  I heard that they spend over $600 in blank ammunition alone for each performance!  Many hundreds more is spent on everything from uniforms to vehicle maintenance.  The money comes from donations and their own pockets.  Despite the time, effort, and cost, one thing was clear to me.  These guys love what they do.

It wouldn't be a war reenactment without an army for our guys to battle.  That is where the 167th Volksgrenadier Division comes in.  This group is a living history and reenactment group that plays the role of Germany in WWII.  They wear the full uniforms and insignias of Nazi soldiers.  Please understand that this is a historical group, not a hate group.  They play an important and commendable role in the demonstration of historical events.

I hope you enjoy these shots as much as I enjoyed capturing and processing them.  There are many more shots from this event on my web site, including black and white renditions of these shots, as well as battle scenes.  Thanks to all those who give so generously of their time and money to make these living history events possible.  I encourage everyone to attend these regular events and support these reenactment groups and theTexas Military Forces Museum.

This was Memorial Day weekend, which was first and foremost a time to remember those who gave their all in service to our country.  To the brave who gave their lives that we may continue to live free, thank you.  You are not forgotten.

Close Assault 2011

This past Memorial Day weekend I had the opportunity to attend "Close Assault", a WWII reenactment staged at Camp Mabry in Austin. This performance was a reenactment of a ground attack on a Nazi stronghold by the 36th Infantry "Texas" Division. It was my first time attending such an event and being a somewhat of a WWII buff I couldn't resist the chance to see one. Since one of the main purposes of the reenactment is to honor those who fought, it seemed like a great way to spend an afternoon over the holiday weekend.

For those who have never been to something like this, it is a great lesson in history. Over an hour was devoted to a telling of the history behind the 36th Infantry and explaining the gear and weapons used in the war. The weapons were demonstrated one by one and the actual reenactment concluded the event. The reenactment itself was surprisingly short! I fired a lot of frames during the flurry of action. I came away with some nice action shots, but my favorite images were the candids I snapped before and after the performance. One of my self criticisms is that I tend to focus more on things and actions than the people involved in events like this. So, I made it a priority to capture close images of the actors and create a more personal look at the event.

One of the things that I noticed about the actors is how happy they were to put on this performance and share a bit of history. It was really hot that afternoon, but the heat didn't dampen anyone's spirits.

A smile crept across this corporal's face as he waited in the shade of a camp mockup prior to the performance. All of the actors were happy to show and explain their gear. Note the enbloc clips holding blank rounds clipped to his straps. I believe I heard that this group spends around $600 per performance in blank ammunition costs.

Another neat thing about this event was how many young people participated. This youngster was taking a break in the shade prior to the performance. I was impressed by the dedication of these young people.

I noticed these young fellows taking a closer look at some small models on display. I was glad I had my camera ready at my side. It was a fantastic moment, seeing the look on their faces as they studied the small vehicles.

Must be a couple of officers! The small rifles carried by these men are M1 Carbines, a favorite gun of mine. These small and light rifles were typically carried by officers or communications persons already carrying a heavy load of gear.

Most soldiers carried the heavy (9+ pounds) M1 Garand. This formidable semi-automatic rifle really tipped the scales in favor of our soldiers at a time when enemy soldiers were primarily equipped with bolt action rifles. General Patton called this rifle "the greatest battle implement ever devised." It feeds from the 8 round clips seen earlier and it makes a distinctive "ping" sound when it ejects the clip after the last round fired. There was no mistaking when the gun was empty.

You can't stage a reenactment without including portrayal of the enemy forces. The Nazi side assists each other with getting their gear on. It is amazing how detailed and historically accurate these actors are dressed.

A Nazi and American soldier chatting jovially on the battlefield? Must be a reenactment! This guys stayed on the field after the reenactment to chat with anyone interested in discussing the event and help kids find spent brass cases for souvenirs.

While this was a reenactment, there is a lot of work that went into it, along with a certain amount of danger. Everyone has to be in the right place at the right time to avoid injury from the explosive gasses emitted by the blank firing guns. There was a certain look of concentration on many participants prior to the reenactment.

This young man looked particularly lost in thought as he reclined in the shade before his performance. He reminded how young some of the guys are who go to war in defense of our country.

This guy playing a Nazi officer caught my eye. He was drinking water from a French wine bottle. No detail was spared by these guys!

This is my favorite image from the event. It was kind of a surreal moment where I raised my camera and his eyes met my lenses just as I brought him into focus. I call this the battle stare! I promptly got out of the way before I was run over by his jeep.

This is a lot of images to share this time around! I took many more, so please check out my full gallery of this event. There are plenty of action shots that I didn't share here. If you get the chance to attend a war reenactment, I highly recommend it.