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  Ernest Brooks, photographer

Ernest Brooks was born near Windsor, England, in 1878. The son of a laborer on Queen Victoria's estate, his frequent interactions with the royal family led to his employment at age 10 as a member of the royal house staff. His youthful duties included caring for the Queen's pet mule, a gift from senior army official Lord Herbert Kitchener. At age 14, he became a boy soldier in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and after his army service became a volunteer in the Glamorganshire Yeomanry regiment. Next, Mr. Brooks accepted a position with Lady Vivian, the widow of Lt. General Hussey Vivian, which is where he first became acquainted with the new medium of photography. Developing plates for Lady Vivian's twin daughters encouraged him to purchase a camera, enthusiastically capturing images of the many esteemed visitors to the Vivian estate. His first portrait was sold for seven guineas to several local newspapers.

Fully embracing his new career as a photographer, Mr. Brooks resigned from Lady Vivian's employ, and returned to his hometown of Windsor, where he became one of the first known freelance photojournalists. Relying heavily upon his royal connections for subjects, Mr. Brooks quickly earned himself the position of the official royal family photographer. In 1911, he traveled to India with King George V, and thereafter opened a lavish studio near Buckingham Palace. His professional career was soon interrupted by World War I, when Mr. Brooks enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. During preparations for the Gallipoli military campaign, he was appointed official British naval photographer. He was given unprecedented access to combat troops, and upon receiving the honorary rank of Second Lieutenant, was sent to photograph the more than two million soldiers occupying Western Front. Joined subsequently by press photographer John Warwick Brooke, the pair developed several significant techniques that allowed them to travel with British forces with relative ease, including utilizing pre-prepared glass negatives and hand-held plate cameras (such as the rapid shutter Goerze-Anschütz folding-plate camera) and apparatus. Their advancements reveal the evolution of wartime photography from the days of Roger Fenton, who was encumbered by transporting heavy equipment and the tedious wet-plate process during the Crimean War.

Despite his pioneering efforts in twentieth-century combat photography, Mr. Brooks' portraiture was still deeply rooted in the nineteenth century, and criticized by modern-day historians for posing subjects and his frequent reliance upon silhouette, manipulating light and shadows to maximize emotional impact. Nevertheless, Mr. Brooks was adamant that field photographs were never faked for propagandist or aesthetic purposes. Near the war's end, he received an appointment as Chevalier of the Belgian Order of the Crown, and was later awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his photographs of the 1918 Italian naval campaign. For reasons never disclosed, Mr. Brooks' tenure as royal photographer ended in 1925, and his prestigious status as Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) was "cancelled and annulled." He still worked as a photographer until 1936, and later lived quietly with his wife in the London suburb of Golders Manor Drive in Hendon. Sadly, when Ernest Brooks died in 1957, there was barely a mention in the press of the man responsible for taking more than a tenth of all British official photographs during the First World War. Collections of his vast works have since been digitized and are currently housed in London's Imperial War Museum and the National Library of Scotland. Several of his royal family portraits reside in the National Portrait Gallery.

2017 Ernest Brooks (Photographer) (

1989 First World War Photographers by Jane Carmichael (London: Routledge), pp. 3, 6, 66.

2015 Getting the Picture: The Visual Culture of the News edited by Jason Hill and Vanessa R. Schwartz (London: Bloomsbury), pp. 41-42.

2016 Harry Clarke’s War: Illustrations for Ireland’s Memorial Records, 1914-1918 by Marguerite Helmers (Kildare, Ireland: Irish Academic Press), p. 113.

2014 Reporting from the Front: War Reporters During the Great War by Brian Best (South Yorkshire, England: Pen & Sword Military), pp. 76, 78, 83.

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2018-03-27 17:41:11

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