Shooting World War I: The History of the Army Signal Corps Cameramen, 1917-1918

For the past two years, the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab has been digitizing a series of Army Signal Corps films as part of a larger project to commemorate the centennial of World War I. Meanwhile, technicians from the Still Pictures Branch and the Digitization Division have scanned tens of thousands of Signal Corps photographs from World War I. Along the way, technician P.T. Corrigan, who performs quality control on the scanned images, forwarded photos of the cameramen to Lab staff, knowing that we love to see records of the people who shot the motion picture films we work with every day.

The following images are from a group of 22 photos documenting the Signal Corps School of Photography at Columbia University in New York. These photos, along with the rest of the series American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918, are available in our online catalog.

  • Explaining mechanical construction of Akeley camera.
  • In formation for practical camera instruction.
  • Different types of cameras for instruction purposes.
  • Different types of camera used in instruction course.
  • Akeley camera in operation.
  • Movie class on the campus.
  • Provex motion picture camera instruction.

I recently had a look at the finding aid for the Signal Corps’ “Historical Series” and found a short history of the World War I Signal Corps photographers. The history and finding aid were written by archivist K. Jack Bauer in 1957. Bauer later became a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and wrote many books, including histories of the Mexican War and a biography of Zachary Taylor.

Click on the pages above to enlarge and read the introduction to the finding aid.

The introduction to the finding aid contains a wealth of information about how the Signal Corps Photographic Section was established and how the unit operated. From Bauer’s finding aid:

“Before World War I, the Signal Corps had given relatively little attention to photography, and few officers or enlisted men had much training in that specialized field. On July 21, 1917, the Signal Corps was designated the bureau responsible for obtaining photographic coverage of American participation in World War I. The photographic coverage was ordered for propaganda, scientific, identification, and military reconnaissance purposes but primarily for the production of a pictorial history of the war.

During July 1917 the Photographic Section was established within the Signal Corps to control all photographic activities of the Army. Although initially short of trained men and cameras, the Photographic Section succeeded in building up a large and efficient organization before the Armistice.

A photographic officer accompanied General Pershing to Europe in order to study the methods and equipment of the photographic departments of the Allied Armies. On July 21, 1917, a laboratory was secured at St. Ouen in Paris for developing and printing motion and still pictures. This laboratory served until February 1918, when photographic operations were transferred to larger quarters in Vincennes.

Beginning with 25 men in August 1917, the Photographic Section attached to the AEF [American Expeditionary Forces] reached a strength of 92 officers and 498 men in November 1918. A photographic unit consisting of one motion-picture cameraman and one still-picture photographer, with assistants, was assigned to each division in addition to other units attached to higher organizations, the Services of Supply, the sea transport service, and the various public welfare organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army. Cameramen in the AEF shot 589,197 feet of film, while film units in the United States filmed 277,173 feet of domestic scenes. In addition, the Signal Corps produced a 62,000 foot training film series called “Training of the Soldier” and a 16,000 foot aviation training film entitled “Flightwings.”

Bauer also included a detailed account of how scenes shot by the cameramen were identified, tracked, and described. Ultimately, the film scenes were re-edited to create the “Historical Series” that we know today as 111-H. Until recently, finding a particular scene was a complicated task that required two “crosswalks” to obtain the film’s item number (archivist Richard Green described this process in the 2013 blog post “Finding a Finding Aid”). However, technicians in the motion picture unit have recently completed scanning and uploading text-searchable images of the Signal Corps’ production files for the 111-H series, so all of the films are easily searchable using the National Archives’ online catalog!

Searching for photos of the Akeley camera used by the Signal Corps photographers is what led me to discover this wonderful document, “Instructions for Signal Corps Photographers,” attached to the production file for 111-H-1199. In addition to general advice about taking close-ups and providing detailed descriptions, the guide has more specific instructions, such as warning that “in the moist climate of France,” Xback, a film stock with an anti-static coating, “sticks on the pressure plate and particles may get on the aperture plate causing scratches.” The document also includes details about the proper size of a film loop in the Akeley camera, and how to shoot film from airplanes.


Finally, below are a few photos from the series technicians are currently scanning. Doubtless, as we continue to scan the films and photographs of World War I, we will uncover more wonderful tidbits of the history of the Signal Corps cameramen. I look forward to finding it all!

Three photographs from the 111-SC series, clockwise from top left: 111-SC-4373, 111-SC-46154, and 111-SC-4386. Click on the embedded links to go to the record in our online catalog and find out more about each photograph.

6 thoughts on “Shooting World War I: The History of the Army Signal Corps Cameramen, 1917-1918

  1. I was a US Army motion picture photographer in Germany between 1970-1972. It is interesting to see what my predecessors looked like and what they used to do their jobs! I was used a 16mm Arriflex motion picture camera to do my job, and didn’t have to truck around so much equipment. In WWII, they used 35mm Bell & Howell Eyemo motion picture cameras that were so massive, you could use them for clubs if you ran out of ammo for your handgun! LOL!

  2. Well Done! My uncle was in the Army Signal Corps as part of the AEF. Now I understand the photos of planes crash landing, blimps, and other photos in his belongings. His letters home were simple, mainly about the French countryside and his need for supplies. He died in France in January 1919.

    1. This is great information. Thank you! My Grandfather was in the Army Signal Corps with the AEF as a motorcycle dispatch driver and mechanic during WW1 until 1919. I have his haversack, letters, photos and signal corps photos of the war

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