Sunday, April 10, 2011

WWI Umbrella Camouflage

Disruptive shadows in a Spanish street festival (c1909)

For whatever reason, there was increased interest in the disruptive effects of shadows among photographers, painters and other artists near the close of the 19th century. This is especially evident in the paintings of certain European and American painters. See for example, John Singer Sargent's Breakfast on the Loggia or The Hermit. In some cases, no doubt it was inspired by patterns of disruption in the protective coloration of animals, as confirmed by demonstrations by Abbott H. Thayer and others. During World War I, comparable techniques were adopted for concealing from aerial observation personnel and equipment on the ground.

According to James E. Edmonds (in History of the Great War, Vol 1, London: Macmillan, 1932, pp. 83-84), “Concealment from the air was first attempted by the use of canvas sheets painted to represent the ground as seen from an airplane. Experience proved these to be heavy to erect and difficult to maintain in position. On the suggestion of Mr. [Solomon J.] Solomon, they were replaced by a lighter and more manageable article [called “umbrella camouflage” or "garnished nets"], in the form of old fish nets or wire netting, garnished with tufts of painted or dyed raffia (gardener’s bast). For the Somme thousands of rolls of wire netting were supplied to the divisional engineers who, when raffia was lacking, wove grass into it. In the course of time all batteries were equipped with these overhead covers. As the demand increased and the supply of raffia became inadequate, canvas strips were substituted for it, and were found to be less flammable.”

But apparently long before the war, there was a civilian tradition of doing more or less the same, as shown here by this photograph from a 1909 issue of The Strand Magazine (p. 719) of a Spanish street festival. Submitted by Edmund Pöhler of Barcelona, the article states: "This strange effect, produced by sunshine and shade, is a common scene in Spanish towns, where, once every year, about eight days are set apart as the Fiesta Major (Grand Holidays). During this period each district vies with its neighbor in adorning the streets. Dancing at night to the music of hired musicians, under the fantastic canopy overhead, illuminated by the many lights of every open window and door, invites one and all to participate in the gaiety and animation of the scene."