News - April 28, 2010

Everything, but the suffering

They are brownish, these aerial photos more than 65 years old. Nothing extraordinary at first sight. Till you look at them through a pocket stereoscope. Wow!

Aerial photos of Wageningen in 1944
Robert Voskuil smiles. This is exactly the kind of reaction he also expects to get from his students every time: the wows, oohs and aahs. He knows only then that the photos are placed correctly and the images are viewed in stereo. That's the moment in which the flat brown photos spring to life. As if looking inside a model. In this case, a model of Wageningen on 24 December 1944.
The city is deserted after the German occupiers ordered evacuation. Wageningen lies in the frontline, in the path of advancing allied troops. The Wageningen Hill is a long line of defence posts. The waters of the Rhine come up against the dike. A smoke fume curls upwards. 'And yet we see relatively little damage', concedes Voskuil.
Physical geographer Voskuil (ITC, University of Twente) is an expert on the special collection of the WWII aerial photos of Wageningen UR. He has seen almost each and every one of the about 95 thousand photos, and has played a major role in putting up the current exhibition in the Forum library.

He came into contact with the collection for the first time while studying in Utrecht in 1968. 'Since then, I am mad about them, especially because you can see so much there', he says. 'A map is an abstraction of reality. But aerial photos cannot lie. They show everything. And these are special because they were taken in war times. You see military operations, but from the perspective of the landscape at that time. And in all kinds of weather conditions. That gives you special information.'
The aerial photos were taken by the British and American air forces. Millions of photos were taken during the war to support the liberation operations. 'Hardly any operation was carried out without the help of aerial photos. Certain areas were photographed every week, and for Operation Market Garden, even three times a day.'
Only a fraction of those photos remain today. The biggest collection is found in the aerial photo archives of Edinburgh in Scotland. Voskuil: 'A Wageningen soil expert has rescued the collection which later found its way into the former Dutch Soil Survey Institute (Stiboka). This now belongs to Wageningen UR. Another collection is kept at the land registry in Zwolle.'

The photos as a whole form a unique historical document. According to Voskuil, the Netherlands has never been mapped systematically before the war using aerial photos. 'The photos show that tremendous changes have taken place in 65 years. They are the only evidence of how the Netherlands looked like then.'
However, it's the Netherlands minus the people. This gives the photos a rather detached ambience, Voskuil says. 'The collection shows another dimension of the progress of the war. You don't see any people, only the colossal destruction.' He points to a photo of the Battle of Arnhem. 'If you see that smoke fume, you know that thousands of soldiers are fighting there. But you don't see the suffering.'

Aerial photos in ones and zeros
Whoever wants to look at a war photo in the special collection at the Forum library can soon do so in the confines of his room. These 95 thousand photos can soon be conjured up on the computer screen and be printed (in low resolution). The task of scanning the photos was completed last week. With subsidy from the Ministry of Health, Welfare and Sport within the programme War Heritage, every photo has been recorded with a resolution of 1200 dpi in ones and zeros. In the meantime, techniques are being developed to enable the photos to be viewed in stereo.

The exhibition of aerial photos in war times is in the Forum library till 17 September.