Most everyone has seen the famous photograph taken by Robert Capa of a Spanish soldier reeling backwards "at the moment of death" during the Spanish Civil War. It epitomizes the power and impact of war photography, not to mention the bravery (or recklessness) of the photographer, who has put himself in the line of fire in order to capture an exclusive image.
But for all those people familiar with Capa's photo and the many other famous scenes captured by legions of his colleagues in the endless wars of the 19th and 20th centuries, how many know that the very first battlefield photo ever taken in the midst of the action was shot in Saskatchewan by a New Brunswick-born army captain during Canada's infamous military action against Louis Riel's Métis uprising?
James Peters, a captain in the permanent Canadian militia at the time of what came to be known as the North-West Rebellion of 1885, was an avid photographer and a free-thinking critic of the Canadian military, who bridled under the command of dimwitted British officers and their penchant for imperial snobbery, according to Michael Barnholden in Circumstances Alter Photographs: Captain James Peters' Reports from the War of 1885.
A battery commander in the Royal Canadian Artillery in Quebec City, Peters had written an anonymous critique of the military in 1881 called How Not To Do It: A Short Sermon on the Canadian Militia, and he was also a battlefield correspondent for the Quebec Morning Chronicle. So when he was called up in 1885 to take part in Ottawa's disreputable decision to crush the Métis people, he armed himself with his Marion Academy twin-lens reflex camera and his pen, and set out on the difficult voyage west.
The Marion Academy camera was state of the art for the day. It had a relatively high shutter speed that liberated it from the need to be placed on a tripod, and it could be loaded in advance with 12 glass plates that served as the film. Peters had his camera at the ready when the Canadian army, under the ill-advised strategy of the British general in charge, walked into an ambush at Fish Creek that ultimately decimated the troops under Peters's command.
"As the cannon roared and nine-pound lead balls flew through the air, Peters unpacked his Marion Academy camera that he had loaded with twelve dry, glass quarter-plates the night before," Barnholden writes in the book's well-researched and moving introduction. "Holding the camera in his hands, with his lens set for infinity, the exposure time would be short enough that he could shoot from horseback. The Métis were firing right at him when he took his first 'instantaneous' photograph of the day - this was the world's first photograph taken under fire."
Barnholden acknowledges that this was not the first photograph taken of a battlefield; those came during the Crimean War (1853-56) and the American Civil War (1861-65). "However," he notes, "the equipment was so cumbersome and the plates necessitated such long exposure times that it was impossible to photograph action. What is generally referred to as early battlefield photography comprises photographs of battlefields after the action has taken place, leaving open the possibility that scenes were specifically arranged or rearranged to suit the 'message' the photographer was attempting to construct for the public."
The plate that Peters called "First at Fish Creek" leaves nothing to interpretation. It shows Canada's soldiers on their bellies crawling toward the edge of an embankment that leads to the creek below. When they stood up to charge, the soldiers were immediately mowed down by the Métis lying in ambush, unseen in the trees on the far side of the creek. This went on all day, according to Barnholden. Another plate shows how clearly the dark-uniformed Canadian soldiers stood out against the grey sky, making them easy targets.
See the images from the book
It was an eye-opening experience for Peters, who was a member of what was probably Canada's first camera club back in Quebec City. He had grown used to being able to meticulously set up his shots, a power he had to abandon with haste on the battlefield.
"As he came to see it very clearly when writing about his experiences after the fact, 'circumstances alter photographs,' " Barnholden writes. "They determine not only the photographer's choice of subject, but also the photographer's ability to control the composition or narrative framing of the subject."
Peters's subsequent photos show his artillery team setting up and then firing on the Métis positions. Once the battle was over, he continued shooting, capturing the aftermath in images of wounded soldiers, the sewing up of the dead in cloth bags, and a burial procession.
And in dozens of other plates, many of them again taken in the heat of the action, he captured images from the Battle of Batoche that led to Riel's surrender and - Peters's most famous image - the captured Louis Riel standing outside a tent while guards hover nearby.
"The picture has cut off his ankles," Barnholden writes. "He has nothing to stand on, no ground at his feet, he stands alone, under the grey prairie sky, alone with his guards and the cameraman, who catches him unaware."
Barnholden, like many current Canadian writers and historians, is sympathetic to the Métis and their decision to declare their independence at the end of a hard winter (1884-85). They, like the local Indian tribes, were starving due to the decimation of the buffalo herds at the hands of Hudson's Bay Company hunters. They were also being squeezed by the arrival of new settlers from the east as they turned to farming to survive. Their entreaties for help to Ottawa, the Canadian Pacific Railway and the Hudson's Bay Company fell on deaf ears, and only their dramatic creation of a Métis provisional government caught anyone's attention.
Prime minister John A. Macdonald's categorical response was to send nearly 5,500 soldiers armed with eight cannons, two Gatling guns, 7,000 rifles and more than one million rounds of ammunition to crush the Métis and Louis Riel - who had previously risen up against Ottawa in the Red River Rebellion of 1869 - once and for all.
Peters did his duty as a Canadian soldier, but he developed a genuine respect for the fighting ability of the outgunned and outmanned Métis. He also hinted in his writings that he came to sympathize with the cause of the Métis and the Indians who allied with them.
Which means he was a groundbreaker not only as a war photographer but as a modern Canadian, as well.