Somerville artist Bonnell Robinson has spent the last 10 years documenting European sites associated with the conflict of WWI through vivid, black-and-white film images. The exhibition that came out of that project, “Sightlines,” is on display at Lesley University through April 7.
Robinson’s connection to the work is deeply personal, spurred by a desire to learn more about her grandfather’s involvement in the war.
“Quite by chance, I came across a journal kept by my grandfather who had served in the American Red Cross during the war,” Robinson told Scout in an email. “He was the one grandparent I never knew, and while reading his diary, I felt I began to know something about him and became increasingly curious about what motivated him to leave a young family and spend 1917-1919 serving in the war.”
What began as a short trip to visit WWI sites in France became a decade-long project touring Belgium, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Robinson captured not only intentional historic sites, but also long-forgotten remnants of war.
“I expected the official sites of remembrance and pilgrimage such as the memorials, vast cemeteries, and historic markers,” Robinson says. “What really surprised me was how much [exists] that is not officially preserved … For example, the munitions found by farmers each spring as they till the soil and then left by the sides of roads to be picked up for demolition. Or the foundations of a field hospital in the Carso in Italy.”
Robinson’s choice to use traditional film posed certain challenges, like hiking to remote locations weighed down with heavy cameras and film holders, but she says it helped her produce emotional, authentic images.
“Changing film took place wherever there was a little shade, under a tree, behind a wall, sometimes a tunnel or a trench,” Robinson explains. “I’m an advocate of digital, but still find there is a look to prints from film, a feeling of depth because of the grain structure. Also, I shot in black and white because I wanted the images to be similar in process and look to vintage images of the time.”
Although her work was well received in Europe and comes off a stint in New York, Robinson has struggled to find galleries to exhibit these photographs in the United States.
“During the exhibitions of my earlier work in France, I thought more people here in the U.S. would be interested,” Robinson says. “But there is greater response in Europe and understanding of why I’m motivated to do a project like this. Europe was devastated by the Great War in a way difficult for us here to comprehend. I do find that people who are interested get interested in depth, and there is usually a personal connection. I have had amazing discussions with some viewers, and most of the time we end up focusing on the psychological aspects. The motivations of people, leaders, soldiers, citizens, who participated or resisted, and how men endured often horrific circumstances.”