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.

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.

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. 

Shooting Long for Candid Moments

I enjoy photographing war reenactments and I'm fortunate enough to have opportunities to do this several times a year in my area. The people who put these on are dedicated living historians. The attention to detail enables one to step back in time and wander around, say a battlefield in France in the midst of the second World War. My goal at these events is to capture images that look like they could have been taken 70 years ago. I don't attempt to create aged looking photos, although I do shoot in black and white and adjust the contrast and tones to be similar to photos of era. It is more important to me to capture the reenactors in character with their "war faces" on. I find that the best way to do that is to keep as much distance as possible and shoot with longish focal lengths.

Take this shot of a couple of German reenactors at a recent event.

The image above works for me because they are lost in their conversation, unaware of my presence. It's a plausible enough scene that could enable a suspension of disbelief for a willing viewer in order to imagine a conversation before a battle many decades ago. 

Contrast this shot with what happens when my camera is spotted.

The plausible historical scene is lost and now we just have a couple of modern folks dressed in the uniforms of German soldiers. I don't think an American war photo journalist would have gotten a smile from the enemy in 1944!  A smile or an uncharacteristic pose is what I typically get when reenactors see me pointing a lens at them. For this reason, I've found it best to use a longer focal length, typically in the range of 100-200mm. This isn't to say that good shots can't had with something shorter. I've just personally found that it's more difficult.

When I shoot with a shorter focal length, I find that I need to kind of hang out and blend in a little while. I'll keep the camera down until people are accustomed to my presence and I'll quickly bring the camera up and down again as inconspicuously as possible. When I'm really working to get a shot and the camera is noticed, resulting in an undesirable pose, I'll often come back with a quip such as, "As you were, soldier." Sometimes that is enough to get someone to snap back into character. By and large though, I believe my best shots come when I can stay as far removed as possible and let the reenactors fall into their character roles with as little disruption as possible.

Here are a few of my favorites from events I've covered over the years. These were all taken from a distance with a telephoto lens, mostly around the 200mm focal length.

It is unlikely that I would have gotten the same in-character expressions had I been just a few feet away. While there are some images where a reenactor's eyes meet with my lens, he is not necessarily aware of me. In cases where I'm spotted from a distance there is usually a delayed reaction since I am not encroaching personal space and by the time acknowledgement of the camera is made, I've typically already fired off a frame or two.

Why do I bring up something that probably sounds obvious to a lot of photographers? It's something that I was considering as I've encountered a number of street photographers advocating the use of wider focal lengths and getting in close. That approach does have merit in a street setting where it is easier to blend in with the general public. At events such as WWII reenactments however, I'm finding that the longer focal lengths are getting me the images I'm after more readily than close-up shooting. That said, there's no right or wrong way to go about it and I have gotten some nice shots with normal or wide lenses. The longer focal lengths just seem to work best for me in capturing those pure moments of living history. Perhaps if I were to dress in a period uniform I'd be as successful with a 28mm or 35mm focal length. That is something I'll have to ponder before the next event.



Waxahachie World War II Weekend 2014

This Veterans Day I thought I'd share a few images that I took at a WWII reenactment in Waxahachie, TX last weekend. They have a big event every year there to honor veterans and share some living history. The main attraction to a lot of people is a battle reenactment where allied forces take a railroad depot back from the Germans. While the battle is a great sight to see, I'm more there to wander around the camps and streets where lots of dedicated reenactors can be seen in full uniform and character. I enjoy mingling with these folks and documenting what they do. These reenactors go to great efforts at personal expense to accurately recreate historical events of WWII. In that spirit, I try to capture moments of these folks in character. As best I can, I isolate them from their modern surroundings and try to provide a realistic glimpse of history. 

To our nation's veterans who have bravely served in defense of our freedom - thank you.

My full gallery of images from the event can be viewed here.

All images were captured with a Fujifilm X-T1 and XF55-200mm lens. Black and white images from the camera were post processed in Adobe Lightroom to mimic film contrast and grain.

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.