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Fabulous Canadian heritage treasures: the original camera and an original photo of the photographer Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, who combined to document Canada's first ever military expedition overseas, and established new standards in the taking of candid action photos of men at war with small portable cameras.
James Mason established that to get the best photos a photographer would have to take the same risk as the fighting men they were trying to portray, not just keep doing the same old camp shots so beloved by Fenton, Gardner, Brady and most of the other Boer War photographers.
|Boer War Kodak #2 Model A Folding Camera & Portrait of Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, 1899|
|Orig. camera and photo - Size - original
Found - Cambridge, ON
One of the finest of all photos ever taken in the Boer War, is this one snapped by Canadian Lt. James Cooper Mason, of the men of B company bathing at the Thomas Farm just outside Belmont, South Africa in December, 1899.
It looks as if it was shot last week by Cartier-Bresson at his peak, not 100 years ago by a talented Canadian soldier who doubled as a war photographer.
It is nothing if not an artistic masterpiece of how to take a tasteful photo of masses of naked men for public presentation. No artifice, no posing. Photographer and subjects are completely at ease with each other.
The frame is full of interesting stuff, and all the pictorial elements are masterfully composed and arranged: the horizon and tower are well placed; the image borders are clear of distracting cut up or outward turned figures; the unity of the composition, the depth, the perspective, the spontaneity, are captivating. The eye is led into the frame, around, and then back again.
No painters have ever managed the figures on their canvas better than James did here, by knowing just how to compose with the camera for maximum effect, and calculating the precise moment when to snap his shutter.
It shows what the new portable camera could accomplish in the hands of a sensitive master on the lookout for candid action photos.
It also signaled that in war photography, the stiff, self-conscious and posed look, pioneered by Fenton, Gardner, and Brady, and which dominated how men at war were depicted for the previous fifty years, was over.
And this happened decades before fast films, and photojournalists with their array of lenses, and fancy camera controls for speed, aperture, and focus, on Contaxes and Leicas, came along. James did it with crappy film, a crappy camera with a crappy lens, and with only one photo control, the shutter button... And the worst format; the square block is the worst for composing...
It is also amazing that James shot no dupes, no variations of the same scene - ever!
There is only one photo of the bathers - James shot it only once!
And that was it. In all his photos we've seen, not once has he shot more than one photo of the same scene or subject. All the dupes in his collection are of the same image, never a variation of any kind.
What other master photographer could get away with this and produce the first rate results that James produced?
James took the bathing photo on the farm of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas, who were Boers living in British Cape Colony. He took a picture of the Thomases on their porch and added his cryptic caption on the back.
The Cape Colony railway runs into Belmont just outside the border of the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State, which Lord Roberts would shortly invade.
James' caption mirrors the suspicion of the British troops that the loyalty of the Boers in the British territory of Cape Colony was suspect in the war between the British against their Boer cousins across the border.
James developed a friendship with the Thomases because he was later placed in command of a detail to safeguard the farm as the western defences of the railway station. He was jocularly mocked, by fellow officers, and the press back home, as an independent commander of an outpost with no one to answer to.
James watched battalion after battalion sweeping by on their way to join Lord Roberts' massing army at Ramdam a few kms north of Belmont. It was the prelude to his historic March to Pretoria.
Hundreds of oxen and donkey teams went by in early February, accompanied by thousands of marching men.
|Great Canadian Heritage Treasure|
|Bathing at the Thomas Farm - Lt. James Cooper Mason DSO, 1899|
|Orig. Mason photo - Image Size - 8.5 x 8.5 cm
Found - Cambridge, ON
GREAT CANADIAN HERITAGE SHAME
Belmont station is empty and abandoned today, as we discovered it in 2000.
Our proposal called "The Belmont Project" had incorporated data we had amassed during our privately financed research trip to South Africa in 2000, which resulted in the most detailed report on the people, places, and events, of Canada's South African Boer War heritage sites ever conducted by anyone in the 100 years since the Canadians left.
In spite of our multi-level department approach, no one ever bothered to respond to our huge museum proposal and our original Canadian heritage initiative...
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. 1996-1999-2005
The Sunnyside Affair January 1900
When Canadians went into action for the first time they went under a British commander, Col. Pilcher who decided to go on a Boer hunting expedition on Dec. 30, 1899.
He took C Company of the Royal Canadians which caused grousing among the Canucks because it seemed that the home regiment of the Canadian commander, Col. Otter left was getting all the plum assignments on their deployment in South Africa.
Frankly the Canadians all preferred the British commander, Pilcher, whom they saw as a man of action, while Otter seemed to be an administrative ditherer and always playing favourites.
James couldn't go - he was B Company - but he took more pictures of preparations for this event than any other while he was at Belmont.
Colonel Pilcher led the column some 20 miles west of Belmont, to attack a commando of Boers at Sunnyside.
Above the Royal Horse Artillery is waiting the start of the march at Belmont, and right James catches the Queenslanders getting final instructions.
The Australians would suffer their first fatality of the war during the engagement to come.
A celebrated illustration of the Battle of Sunnyside. The Boers are on the distant kopje. In the left middle distance some Canadians and Queenslanders are rushing across to climb the kopjes and flush the Boers, who fled.
No Canadians were killed but Australia counted its first war dead with two fatalities.
The column went another 20 miles to Douglas which the Canadians entered singing the Maple Leaf Forever. It produced another memorable British illustration above.
Below James pictures the wounded being brought into Belmont train station which still stands. It served as the Canadian guard house as well as a hospital for the wounded resulting from the Sunnyside "affair."
|Above A month after Sunnyside, Lord Roberts on the right, strolling with Canadian RCR commander, Col. William Otter at Belmont station just before the big March to Pretoria. The tall figure is General Kitchener, who will, within days, kill off some 20 of the Canadian boys standing on guard for the visit. Many photographers were snapping away that day so no one is sure who took this picture.|
|Go to Col. William Otter|
Bored in Belmont - The Canadians, November, 1899 - February, 1900
When the Canadians took over the battlefield at Belmont, only a couple of weeks after the battle there, their first job was to bury dead horses and dead Boers.
Then they set to work to secure the area better, by building a wall of stone on the eastern side of the railway station facing the Boer Republic of the Orange Free State. Remnants of the Canadian stonework are still visible 100 years after their departure.
But the Boers never did return though shots were heard in the vicinity from time to time as James notes in his diary.
Next the Canadians built a railway siding because increased traffic was expected as Lord Roberts wanted to jump off his great March to Pretoria only some ten kms north near Enslin.
Again James' superb camera eye is on display here as he uses the rules of classic composition to compose his image: the diagonal rails to lead us into the picture where he has carefully placed interesting subject matter in the foreground, middle ground, and background.
In between construction work the men had to drill and do target practice, so that if they ever managed to see a Boer they might be able to hit him.
Many of these were city boys who had little or no shooting or soldiering experience of any kind.
Right the men are firing from the stone breastwork they built. Beyond is Scot's Ridge or Table Mountain just east of Belmont station.
James carried off another fine composition here with subject interest in the foreground, middle, and rear. Unfortunately something caused a camera jiggle, making it somewhat fuzzy.
James would say this is not one of his best shots.
44 years later Robert Capa's D-Day pictures all looked shaky like this, and he - and others - would say Wow!. Great artistry, a great effect...
Below James photographed his own "B" Company.
Most of James' photos are mounted like this famous portrait of himself right and Lt. Temple, photographed just before going on night sentry duty at an outpost on Christmas Eve 1899.
Everyone was on high alert that the Boers might return to attack Belmont station. Sometimes gunshots were heard in the vicinity; other times Boer horsemen were seen.
It was boring for the new Canadian recruits, but it was still war...
Armies have always had camp followers; in Belmont they were unique. In boring off times, men amused themselves by trying to ride the ostriches, or pull out their tail feathers without getting stomped to death by the powerful legs.
More than one soldier tried to bring back a huge ostrich egg souvenir Some British soldiers managed the feat of bringing a fragile souvenir back to England. No Canadian was able to as far as we know.
Sand storms were something the Canadians thought were rare enough that James used up a precious exposure to capture one. Some Canadians soon complained that goggles should have been provided them in Canada, as standard kit to protect the eyes from the sting of flying sand and debris.
Below looks like an officer's tent with an ingeniously perched wash basin. The men didn't think it was that important to keep up appearances; more than a few grew beards or scruffy facial hair.
The prison below, with an armed guard outside, is not for Boers. Inevitably, patriotism wore thin among some after weeks of boring construction work and no fighting - Boers anyway.
James sat in at least one court martial, though he doesn't say what the infraction was. His diary notes Corp. Frawley was busted to the ranks; others locked up.
Another image of the Canadians resting after drill at Belmont.
In the foreground are two officers having a jocular conversation. One wears puttees, the other leather leggings to keep the mud, dirt, and weeds and thorns from snagging and befouling pant legs.
James used these as well.
Though James never identifies people in his pictures - he clearly knew them well so though it superfluous to write the obvious - and did not do so here.
But it may very well be that here we have one of the last pictures pictures ever taken of Captain Arnold from Winnipeg who was killed on Bloody Sunday, at Paardeberg, only days after this image was shot.
Left a commemorative card showing Arnold and the send off for him and his company in front of the city hall in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Is he the smiling bearded who is spreading out his hands in making a point? Apparently he had grown a beard in South Africa.
A commonly reproduced James Mason image of Captain Arnold - bearded in the middle - sitting among brother officers. The Public Archives lists this image - erroneously - as "On the way to Paardeberg."
This is clearly another archiving mistake by a sleepy or inventive civil servant. Here, in James' own hand, is his description of where and when the picture was taken.
Below there is a jaunty swing as James catches the men of A Co arriving back in camp after a route march.
Finally, after months of drill and boredom at Belmont, the Canadians were ordered to join the March to Pretoria starting seven kms north.
Above James shot the RCRs breaking camp. For some 40 of them, their lives would soon be cut short by war and and the dreaded enteric fever.
Now the tents folded, the men are off, for what they always wanted, to test their mettle against the Boer...
Somewhere between Ramdam and Paardeberg James had someone snap a photo of him, girded for war, with his sword in place, as the exhausted men rest.
Within a few short days dozens of them would have eternal rest...