Ghost Soldiers – Finding the Past in the Present

It started with a rainy day.

The Blue Max Project involves the creation of a soldier’s journal with written thoughts, sketches and photographs.  I have been musing about how I will use photographs.  I don’t want to grab archival photos and pretend it is something that happened in the story.  I want to create photos that reinforce the story.  I had been thinking about photos that aren’t really photos.  Something I create that use historical photos as a source but allows me to compose my own image.  A mix of imagination and reality.  Since the project involves a focus on aviation I thought I would experiment taking photographs of cloudy skies and mix in airplane images to see if I could “create” a photograph.

So on a rainy Sunday morning I became a “cloud hunter”.  With my dog on leash I took a morning walk with camera in hand along a bike trail near where I live.  The trail follows along a long row of high voltage power lines over an easement of scrub grasses.  Not sure I know how to photograph clouds very well just yet, became clear that walking by power lines was not the ideal location to photograph the sky, but got a number of images including this one.

SkyAs I was walking back, figuring I had pretty much gotten what I was going to get, I started to look down instead of up.  With the help of my friends at The Great War Forum  I had spent the last few weeks researching the military service of my wife’s grandfather William Rigg.  I had spent the night before reading through the dozens of battles his regiment had participated in during his four years of service.  Names like the Somme, Bapaume, Arras, Ypres, Lys, Menin Road….. the maps, the details and casualty statistics where dizzying.  What his life was like during those four years was hard to imagine.

I started noticing the potholes filled with water in the access road under the power lines.  Was wondering if I could photograph a field and compose a crash scene from The Blue Max.  Than I came upon some rutted tire tracks going up a muddy road.  It immediately made me think of the foot soldier, trodding along a road.  I took a number of photos including this one.


Back at home, I dug through Google Images, searching for views of soldiers walking along the front.  This image stood out right away.

WW1 Photo

I used photoshop to take my muddy road shot, clip out the house and sky in the background and combine it with my cloudy sky shot.  I converted everything to black and white and clipped out the soldiers from the vintage photo and duplicated them on my roadway, attempting a composition that felt right.  Some soldiers I used twice or reversed them so they looked like they naturally followed the roadway.

Test Run2This is where it got tricky.  My initial tries of drawing over the soldiers was very cartoony because of all the details on them.  I wanted something that evoked memory and perhaps emotion, not a drafting exercise.  I used my line drawings as a source and added shading to give them a three dimensional look.  I left the outline but removed the detail lines and gave them shadows to stand off the page.  Finally I applied a filter to the backround drawing to make it look a little less real.  I decided to leave them somewhat transparent and title the work “Ghost Soldiers”

Ghost Soldiers

I want to dedicate this week’s blog and the “Ghost Soldiers” image above to the men and women at The Great War Forum for the work they do helping others research their family’s history.

KevinBattle, Roughdiamond, Tom Lang and many others helped me with gathering information to better understand William Rigg and his life during his service to his country.  That journey is not over yet and eventually I will share more of what I have gathered with the help of their efforts.

“Ghost Soldiers” for me  became a reference for the journey people make researching documents and records in the present day to give flesh and spirit to the past.  The path is muddy and difficult, the image will always be a bit unclear, but the reward for your efforts is a connection between the past and the present that gives us perspective on our history, our family and our own lives.




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