Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Mirrored Camouflage Listening Posts in WWI

An apparent problem during World War I was that of trying to conceal an eavesdropper within hearing distance of the enemy's position. As we've shown in earlier posts, this was sometimes accomplished by constructing (probably using pâpier maché) the convincing likeness of a rotting horse carcass. Hollowed out and equipped with various peepholes, it was of sufficient size that a soldier could secretly listen during daylight, then return to his unit in darkness.

It is impossible to know how often (if at all) "ye olde dead horse deception" was actually used on the battlefield. The only photographs we've seen were made as demonstrations at camouflage training camps, and distributed to various American news services, for amusing wartime anecdotes. If the method were actually being used on the battlefield, it wouldn't make sense to broadcast it to the enemy.

Other devices were also employed, or at least they were tested at camouflage training camps. Reproduced above, for example, is a US Army photograph of three soldiers who were testing a curious listening device that consists of a mirrored sheet mounted on a wooden frame (slightly tilted forward). The irregularly-shaped edge is an attempt to make it fit in better with the natural surrounding. Because the facing panel is mirrored, an observer from the front would see a reflected image of the terrain, but not the soldier behind it. It may seem clever, but it can't have been very effective. In this photograph, the three soldiers are positioned so closely together that their own bodies would be visible in the mirror of the person behind them.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) online documentation of this (NARA A339 and A341) includes a second photograph (as in before-and-after views). In that photograph (shown below), we see the enemy's point of view (more or less) and—voila!—there is not a trace of the hidden listeners (well, almost).

This idea was not unprecedented at the time of WWI, and it has often resurfaced in the past one hundred years or so. As one of many examples, reproduced below is a patent drawing for a "Reflective Hunting Blind," invented c2008 by Kevin Pottmeyer and Chester Burdette and registered as US Patent 8579007 B2.

It consists of four hinged panels, irregularly shaped along the top edge, with peepholes through which a hunter can look. The inner surface is covered with a disruptive camouflage pattern, while the side that faces out (as shown here) is a reflective mirror surface (slightly tilted forward). As a result, the inventors explain—

A game animal looking into the front of the blind from a distance therefore sees only a reflection of the terrain surrounding the blind, thereby making the blind substantially indiscernible from the surrounding terrain and effectively obscuring a hunter…

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WWI Camouflaged Observation Car

Above Camouflaged World War I US Army staff observation car (c1918). Based on an Ordnance Department photograph now in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). 165-WW-296A-019. Extracted from original black and white photograph and digitally colorized.


Anon, ‘Soul Study’ Photos for Ugly Folk: Camera Decreases Years and Removes Double Chins for Patrons (reprinted from the New York Sun) in Abel’s Photographic Weekly. Vol 30 No 774, October 21, 1922, pp. 460-462.

I’m satisfied with photography that shows people as they are. I think that’s what it’s for. I never could see that it was any compliment to a photograph to say that it looked like an oil painting.

It isn’t a photograph’s business to be like an oil painting, and a thing that imitates something else is just a joke, with no sincerity or usefulness in it. All that foggy, smokey, posey camouflage that they’ve dragged into photography to make it look like art doesn’t make any impression on me at all. I want a picture of myself as I am or none at all, but if you want one that makes you look like a dying duck in a thunderstorm you’d better go and get it without consulting me. 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Dazzle-Camouflaged Beverage Can

Above Des Moines-based graphic designer Kenny Miesner (former student of whom we have warm memories) shared with us this image and link to Focus Lab studio's concept (not actually used by the client) of a dazzle-camouflaged beer can. It reminded us of a reviewer's comment when the Chelsea Arts Club Dazzle Ball was held in London in 1919. The writer cautioned that the dazzle-patterned costumes might cause the dancers to collide. No doubt a couple of beers would help.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Game | DazzleShip Battleships

Box cover of Dazzleship Battleships game (2017)
Above Last year we were asked to serve as a consultant (fact-checker on the booklet text) in the development of a new boxed game called Dazzleship Battleships, the cover of which is reproduced here. Produced by Laurence King, it has recently been published. The container cover, the open box and some of its components are shown below.

Among the inside components is a brief illustrated overview of the method and the rationale for World War I ship camouflage, called dazzle-painting.

A spread from the booklet is shown below. Overall, what a wonderful package design. A beautiful object, game or none. Collectors of exquisite graphic design will love it.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Papier Mâché Used in Wartime Camouflage

H.L. Messmore with battlefield dummy (1918)
Above Above is a colorized version of a 1918 photograph of H.L. Messmore, a prominent supplier of components for amusement parks, carnivals and expositions. For example, he contributed to the Panama Exposition in San Francisco, the Chicago World’s Fair, the Golden Gate Exposition and the New York World’s Fair. He was a partner in Messmore and Damon, which his brother George established in 1914. It was H.L. who built the Electric Park in Detroit in 1907, and also served as manager of Luna Park at Coney Island.

During World War I, H.L. Messmore appears to have shared with the army his expertise in making papier mâché and plaster figures. In this photograph, he is inspecting an unpainted dummy of a soldier, to which he is about to add sculpted binoculars. The caption on the black and white photograph (which is available online at the National Archives and Records Administration website) states that “after use in this country in the Liberty Loan Campaign, [it] will be placed in a trench in France as a dummy target.”

In earlier posts, we’ve talked about such uses of plaster and papier mâche dummies during WWI. Since horse carcasses were a common feature at the front, hollowed-out dummy horses might be used as observation posts. An instructional example (in this case, it appears to be a clay model) is shown below, both front and back, including the rough-hewn shape of a soldier inside.

Spurious Horse Carcass (c1918)
When I was an art student in the 1960s, I thought papier mâché was a non-durable technique used only by hobbyists and amateurs. But I learned from one of my painting teachers that it was highly durable and had been used very seriously in building all sorts of astonishing things. In particular, he showed me a functional lute that he had made using papier mâché. I was amazed, since it looked and felt identical to a lute made out of wood. He also built highly detailed, elaborate marionettes from the same materials.

Arthur B. Jensen's book (1919)
During WWI, one of the people who made an effort to extend the use of papier mâché for military purposes was a man named Arthur B. Jensen (1899-1987), who was Danish-born (apparently) and lived in the vicinity of Rockford IL. While serving in the US Army Reserves, he was the senior instructor in the Camouflage Department of the Blackhawk Division, which was initially stationed at Camp Grant IL, near Rockford. At the end of the war, he published a book on the use of plaster and papier mâché for modeling, titled Jensen System of Modeling: Employing the Superskill Modeling Device (1919). As he explains and illustrates, while stationed at Camp Grant, he and other soldiers made a 25-foot high statue of Blackhawk (the Native American leader), constructed of waterproofed plaster and papier mâché. Reproduced below is the title spread of Jensen’s book, and a photograph of the statue he made.

Papier mache statue of Blackhawk (c1918)

The following is an excerpt from Jensen’s book (pp. 3-4)—

Plaste papier modeling has a glorious past. The US Army used this method in the World War for making dummies to attract enemy fire and so learn their location, and in many other ways. In several instances, a dead horse lying on No-Man's Land near the enemy trench was replaced by a good duplicate made in plaste papier, and the observer would crawl into the paper horse before dawn each day and observe the enemy's action all day at close range. Great guns were imitated in this material and placed in the vicinity of real guns that were carefully concealed through camouflage. The Boche [German] observers sent out to discover the location of the real batteries that were doing the havoc to the enemy would discover the paper guns only, and so the enemy artillery would train their fire on the dummy batteries and allow the real guns to continue their fire without being molested. The real guns were concealed by having their outlines painted out by means of broken forms of various colors painted all over the guns, and also covering the guns with foliage. A great statue of Blackhawk, 25 feet high,was modeled in this material and waterproofed, just before the Blackhawk Division left Camp Grant IL, for France in July 1918. This work was done by the Blackhawk Division's Camouflage Department, of which the writer was a member. It still stands, after these many months, defying the elements; the winds and rains and snows could not destroy it; and it still looks as permanent as though carved out of solid rock.

[Added March 22, 2017] Since our original post of this page, we've discovered a related article in the March 1920 issue of Boy's Life magazine, titled "The Use of Plaste Papier in the War" (p. 55), including the following excerpt—

Plaste papier is really nothing more than wrapping paper dipped in plaste, which makes it plastic and pliable while the artist is modeling with it, and very hard and rigid after it dries.  It was very light, being modeled as a hollow shell, and so could be carried about near the fornt line trenches easily.

To make this substance even more easily handled, Lieutenant A[rthur] B. Jensen has invented a superskill modeling device, which consists of aluminum strips which describe the important lines of the head, neck and shoulders of a man and woman. This device enables anyone to secure the correct lines and proportions of the head, without interfering in the slightest with the modeler's originality. On the same frame one can model the head of President Wilson, a portrait of himself, the bust of Venus de Milo, or any other subject.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

David Linneweh | Compositional Camouflage

Configuration (Rockford) © David Linneweh 2013 •
Above A long-time friend, Joseph Podlesnik (artist, photographer, filmmaker, teacher), recently introduced me to the work of artist David Linneweh. I was especially struck by this particular painting, titled Configuration (Rockford), 24 x 36 in., oil and graphite on panel (2013). It is so very exactly composed and beautifully executed. It's just also very smart in the ways in which it taunts us with suggested (yet withheld) connections. In every inch of its surface, one encounters an on-going battle between flat graphic abstraction and the illusion of three-dimensional form. This is not cubism, but it has much in common with that, as it does with World War I ship camouflage.

In looking at this painting, I am reminded of Wylie Sypher's account (see Rococco to Cubism in Art and Literature) of the constructive-destructive strategies of the cubist designers and painters. These include (as Sypher wrote)—

…a breaking of contours, the passage, so that form merges with the space about it or with other forms, planes or tones that bleed into other planes and tones; outlines that coincide with other outlines, then suddenly reappear in new relations; surfaces that simultaneously recede and advance in relation to other surfaces; parts of objects shifted away, displaced, or changed in tone until forms disappear behind themselves.

Linneweh teaches at the College of Dupage (Glen Ellyn IL), and the College of Lake County (Grayslake IL). He appears to be prolific, as judged by his website, online portfolio, and an interesting series of podcasts called Studio Break. His efforts are well-deserving of an extended, serious look.

• Reproduced by permission of the artist.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Camouflage Artist | Anne Lemanski

Camoufleur © Anne Lemanski 2014
Above In recent days, we've been fortunate to run across the innovative sculpture of Anne Lemanski, an American artist whose representations of animals are in part derived from her knowledge of protective coloration in nature, aka animal camouflage.

Abbott Thayer would be delighted.

The piece shown here is Camoufleur (2014), and is made with vintage paper, epoxy, wood, etc. It measures 15.5 x 15 x 8.5 inches. There are many other works by her that are equally astonishing, as can be viewed on her website. See Ocelot (2016) and Tiger Target (2016) below.

All works copyright © Anne Lemanski. Reproduced with her permission.

Ocelot © Anne Lemanski 2026

Tiger Target © Anne Lemanski 2016

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Smithsonian | World War I Ship Camouflage

Smithsonian article on WWI ship camouflage
Above and below World War I government photographs of two of the women camoufleurs, called Yeomen (F) to distinguish them from men, who served in the US Naval Reserve with the Design Subsection of the navy's Camouflage Section. In an attempt to find opportunities for women to participate meaningfully in the war, a small number were allowed to work on ship camouflage.

As shown here, women were only responsible for assembling small wooden ship models, on which camouflage schemes were painted by men, for testing in a periscope-equipped observation theatre. Only the men were allowed to design the actual schemes. Shown here are colorized versions of public domain black and white news photographs (c1918) in the collection of the National Archives and Records Administration.


Linda Rodriquez McRobbie, from an excellent, detailed article on WWI dazzle ship camouflage online at

…In order for a U-boat gunner to fire and hit his target from as far as 1,900 meters away (and not closer than 300 meters, as torpedoes required at least that much running distance to arm), he had to accurately predict where the target would be based on informed guesses. Compounding the difficulty was the fact that he had typically less than 30 seconds to sight the target ship through the periscope, or risk the periscope’s wake being seen and giving away the submarine’s location. Typical U-boats could only carry 12 very expensive and very slow torpedoes at a time, so the gunner had to get it right the first time.

“If you’re hunting for ducks, right, all you have to do is lead the target and it’s a simple process. But if you’re a submarine aiming at a ship, you have to calculate how fast a ship is going, where is it going, and aim the torpedo so that they both get to the same spot at the same time,” says Roy R. Behrens, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa, author of several books on dazzle camouflage and the writer behind the camouflage resource blog Camoupedia

Wilkinson’s idea was to “dazzle” the gunner so that he would either be unable to take the shot with any confidence or spoil it if he did. “Wilkinson said you had to only be 8 to 10 degrees off for the torpedo to miss. And even if it were hit, if [the torpedo] didn’t hit the most vital part, that would be better than being hit directly.”… more>>>

WWI American woman camoufleur

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Camouflage Fashion | Swimsuits, Stripes & Headgear

Dazzle-Painted Bathing Suit (1919) [colorized]
Above This is a young, fashionable sun bather at the beach at Margate in 1919, dressed in a scandalous dazzle-painted bathing suit. The fad was enormously popular—it went viral at the time—and widely covered in the press. We've talked about this in earlier posts, the only difference being that this is our colorized version of one of the news photos.


Anon, "Camouflage Finds Use in Fashions" in The Coshocton Tribune (Coshocton OH) (April 15, 1920), p. 7—

LONDON—The artists who decorated our recently almost invisible ships and who hid the armies of the western front behind and under painted canvas and "ersatz" villages are out of a job.

Hence the Spring millinery styles.

The dazzle hat has arrived, and with it a game.

Says one fashion writer:

"If you see coming toward you a woman who in some unaccountable way seems to melt into a sort of rainbow mass above the shoulders, don't be alarmed; try to find her hat."

To the uninitiated the new Spring designs seem to be meaningless collections of colored stripes and zig-zags. Some are even more like forked lightning.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

US Camouflage Artists Preparing Ships for Testing

US Ship Camouflage Artists (1918) [colorized]
Above Our unfinished colorization of a World War I US Navy photograph, an original of which is in the collection of the National Archives and Record Service (No 165-WW-70C-001). It is described as having been received from the Navy Department, Bureau of Construction and Repair, on July 12, 1918, but there is no indication of when it was actually taken.

In this photograph, four ship camouflage artists are applying dazzle camouflage schemes to various sizes and types of wooden ship models. When completed, the models were stored on the shelves on the back wall. We now know the identities of these four artists, all of whom had been career artists in civilian life. They are (left to right) John Gregory, Gordon Stevenson, Frederick Judd Waugh, and Manley Kercheval Nash.


Haldane Macfall [reviewing a London exhibition of paintings by John Everett of WWI camouflaged ships], "The Dazzle-Painter" in Land and Water (February 6, 1919), p. 31—

Now, whilst the guns, for instance, on land were best fogged from observation by camouflage, this problem was not quite so easy for the sea-folk. The sea-gong camouflage artist had to wash out all land laws and discover the whole business anew. First of all, the main object of true camouflage, invisibility, had to go by the board. The light made invisibility pretty questionable: a light sky behind any ship converts it into a solid silhouette. The painter soon found this out; but his endeavor discovered to him a fact almost as important, and on that fact the camouflaging of ships was largely developed. Nothing could reveal this to the landsman better than the art of John Everett in these paintings, in which he has displayed the beauty that camouflage wrought upon modern shipping in an age that we are wont to look upon as lacking in color and romance. The fact may perhaps be most simply stated somewhat thus: The painting of a ship upon the sea in stripes, or violently contrasted masses employed by skill, curiously enough makes it prodigiously difficult to make out her movement and intention of movement, to make out exactly how she is steering. As Lieutenant [Jan] Gordon neatly puts it, "Dazzle-painting attains its object, not by eluding the submarine by invisibility, but by confusing his judgment." It perplexes the submarine as to the ship's course, its range, and its size. Everett has deliberately treated these dazzle-painted ships with realism and set down his impressions without qualification; and the result is a convincingness that is untainted by any suggestion of trickery or special pleading.


Below Following completion of the dazzle painted ship models, each was carefully tested in an observation theatre, which simulated its appearance through a periscope at sea against different backgrounds, varied lighting , and in various weather conditions). Shown here are two camouflage artists from the same Navy unit, in the process of testing the models. The person at the periscope is architect Harold Van Buskirk, executive officer in charge of the two camouflage subsections (the one shown here was in Washington DC; the other at Eastman Laboratories in Rochester NY). Standing beside him is Kenneth MacIntire, an artist who headed the workshop in which the wooden models were made.

Ship Model Testing Theatre (1918) [colorized]
For more information on American and British WWI ship camouflage (both detailed text and images), see James Taylor's recent book on DAZZLE: Disguise and Disruption in War and Art (2016).

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Bedlam Abounds | Shipshapeliness and Camouflage

USS West Bridge in dazzle camouflage
Above Photograph of the USS West Bridge, as photographed on May 25, 1918, with a dazzle camouflage scheme applied. This is a digitally colorized version, and does not literally represent the colors applied to the actual ship. The public domain photograph on which this rendering is based is in the collection of the Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 65098-A).


Lewis Ransome Freeman [describing a dazzle-camouflaged ship], Sea Hounds. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1919, pp. 112-113—

The fantastic pile of multi-colored slabs blotting out a broken patch of sky above the seaward end of the estuary, if it had been on land, might have been anything from a row of hangars, viewed in slant perspective, to the scaffolding of a scenic railway, or a "Goblin's Castle" in Luna Park…Distorted by the camouflage, the tumbled mass of jumbled colors continued to loom in jagged indefinitiveness as we closed in from astern, and it was only when we had come up well abreast of it that the parts settled down into "ship-shapeliness," and the silhouette of perhaps the most famous of the world's great steamers [USS Lymptania] sharpened against the sunlit afternoon clouds.


Below Digitally colorized version of a black and white news photograph of two members of the Design Subsection of the US Navy's marine camouflage unit near the end of World War I. On the right is Lieutenant Harold Van Buskirk, who was the officer in charge of two teams of artists and scientists (in Washington DC and at Eastman Kodak in Rochester NY, respectively) who designed ship camouflage plans.

US Camoufleurs R.J. Richardson and Harold Van Buskirk

On the left is Raymond J. Richardson, in charge of the drafting room, who had studied camouflage earlier in New York with muralist William Andrew Mackay. Van Buskirk is holding the drawn-up camouflage plans for a certain vessel, a camouflage-painted model of which is being held by Richardson. If the painted model passed the observation tests, the drawing was sent to the US Geological Survey and reproduced in multiples as colored lithographs. These printed plans were then sent out to District Camoufleurs at eleven coastal shipyards throughout the country, for use in applying the schemes to the ships. Nearly 500 different plans were drawn up, colored and printed, of which three complete or partial sets are known to have survived. One of those sets is at the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design, while another is at the National Archives and Records Administration.