As I was getting ready to leave home after Thanksgiving, almost two years ago, my mom said she had something to show me. She pulled out a big black photo album from under our coffee table, casually laid it out in front of me, and blindsided me with the most meaningful, wonderful project I have ever undertaken.
This is my great-grandfather Walter Koessler’s photo album from when he was an officer throughout all four years of World War One. It’s incredible for many reasons:
- Walter was German, and he was an independent photographer. Most surviving photos from the war are from the Allies, and they tend to be propaganda or journalistic. Walter’s photos are very personal.
- Walter was trained as an architect. When he left Germany after the war, he moved to Los Angeles and became an art director for some of the first talkie films. His photos are beautifully composed and well-shot.
- Photography was going through big changes at the time, and Walter was a major early adopter. Film cameras were fairly new, and he took his in the trenches and everywhere else. WWI saw the first major use of airplanes in war, and Walter took aerial reconnaissance photos from biplanes and hot air balloons. Stereographs were also becoming more readily available at the time, and Walter made his own 3D images of life in the war.
- Since Walter moved to Los Angeles so soon after the war, he preserved pretty much everything. The album was made in Los Angeles, and it’s about a hundred pages long, with over 700 photos in it. Since then, the album has been tucked away in Southern California, so it has no mold and has hardly faded at all.
As soon as I saw this, I knew I needed to research it carefully and share it with the world. For the most part, there are no captions for the photos, so that research has been a big challenge. I’ve gone through the album many times, interviewed family members, reached out to people online, and visited one of the places in the album.
My family has also saved a box of about a hundred more stereographs that show WWI in 3D. I’ve since found that my grandma saved hundreds of the original negatives from both the album and the stereographs, and they’re practically pristine. It’s a formidable, and frankly somewhat intimidating collection. Nearly a hundred years later, it seems almost impossible that these things have been kept in such great condition, and I’m so grateful my family has let me take charge of it.
Finally, I think I’m prepared to start the process of scanning and sharing them here. I hope you’ll find it as fascinating as I do.