Ernest Brooks

Ernest Brooks

(1878 (~maybe~)-1957)

DJ Name: DJ Ernie Fire Burnie

It’s been just over 100 years since the United States first started commemorating its veterans on November 11, starting with President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation in 1919 on the one-year anniversary of Germany and the Allied nations agreeing to cease the hostilities of World War I. 

Yesterday, we remembered those men and women who fought in the “war to end all wars,” as well as the men and women who continue to fight in U.S. wars because, LOL, World War I didn’t really end all wars. Oops! While it’s certainly important to honor those who risk their lives to fight for our country, a certain segment of the front lines tends to get lost in the (historic) shuffle: war photographers. And one of these photography phenoms is Ernest Brooks, the phirst official photographer to be appointed by the British military. Though yesterday’s celebration of Veterans was centered on our members of the American military, this week we’re taking you across the pond to learn about Ernest and his photography skillz because he was the reason front line photography is what it is today. 

Thanks to people like Ernest, who document the good, the bad and the ugly of military efforts, we at home can see who the heroes and sheroes are out on the battlefield. Haulin’ tush and his honkin’ camera through the action, Ernest often found creative inspiration with this here playlist, which he shuffled up while framing the perfect shot:

Ernest Brooks was born near Windsor, England, on February 23, 1878 (~maybe~ because some sites say 1876, so basically he was born in the late-ish 1870s), right by the Great Park, which was, for many centuries, the private hunting ground for the royal fam living in Windsor Castle. Ernie’s dad worked as a farm laborer at the Great Park, and so young Ernie often brushed shoulders with the ~elite~. He left school in 1890 to work on the estate, too, where one of his duties was to look after Queen Victoria’s mule (or was it a horse?), which had been given to her by senior army official Lord Herbert Kitchener. In 1892, when he was 14, he enlisted in the 3rd Dragoon Guards, and after his service he served as a volunteer with the Glamorganshire Yeomanry regiment. He understood what it meant to be a man in the military, or rather a boy in the military, and his first foray in fotografía would follow shortly. 

Leaning into his #EstateLife, Ernie took a job with Lady Vivian, widow of Lt. General Hussey Vivian, whose twin daughters each had a camera. While we all have dope cameras these days on our smartphones, cameras were pretty rare and also super expensive during these days. Part of Ernie’s gig was to develop the girls’ film. One of the girls’ photos that Ernie developed is now known as “Migrant Mother,” because we’ve got some child prodigies on our hands, OK. All right, maybe not, it was probably just a lot of pictures of dolls and mules trotting around the estate, but whatever, this was Ernie’s entry into the developing medium of photography. 

Ernie said “let’s get this bread,” but also “let’s get this camera,” and he used his weekly shilling payments from babysitting working on the estate to purchase a camera of his own. He practiced his photog skills by snapping pics of esteemed visitors to Lady Vivian’s estate, and he sold his first portrait to TMZ local newspapers for seven guineas (about $10 in today’s money terms). After that big sell, Ernie knew the sky was the limit. He could be a paparazzi/photojournalist/camera man with a plan full-time, thank you very much! So he quit his job working for Lady V and returned home to Windsor to pursue life as a phreelance photographer. This was a rare gig in these days, since not many people knew their way around a camera and many were still slowly growing accustomed to this new medium. Ernie used his contacts with the elite squad to get access to subjects, and then he’d sell his prints to local newspapers. But everyone knows that there ain’t no money in the newspaper world (boo!), and it wasn’t long before the Royal Family hired Ernie to work as their official photographer. Ernie was kinda like the first Pete Souza, except instead of snapping pics of a congenial Obama scratching Bo’s oh-so-fluffy ears, he was documenting the regal stoicism of England’s elite in their Sunday best. 

One of his tasks in 1906 was to accompany Princess Ena, granddaughter of Queen Victoria, to Spain for her wedding. Ernie captured the nuptials, getting the first formal photo of Princess Ena and King Alfonso XIII as a couple. In 1910, he again became an international photographer when he accompanied the Duke of Connaught to South Africa, and again when he went to India with King George V. After those trips, Ernie decided to expand his photog entrepreneurship dreams and opened his own studio on Buckingham Palace Road in central London. However, he still kept ties with and worked as the official photog for the King and Queen. 

Snapping portraits and candids here, there and everywhere in London, Brooks’ photography career took a macro turn when the Austro-Hungarian heir AKA Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia by Serbian Nationalist Gavrilo Princip on June 28, 1914. Princip wanted to end Austro-Hungarian rule over Bosnia and Herzegovina. In response to the assassination, Austria-Hungary blamed the Serbian government for the attack. Soon enough, Europe erupted in war — the First World War. During World War I, it was the Central Powers versus the Allied Powers. Those Central Powers consisted of Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire while the Allied Powers were made up of Great Britain (where our man Ernie comes in #represent), France, Russia, LITaly, Romania, Japan and the U.S.

Germany invaded France and Russia, opening two fronts. Shortly thereafter, the French and British forces confronted the invading German army in the First Battle of the Marne. Nothing was ever the same as the Allied troops banded together against the advancing Central Powers, who even took it to the high seas and began sinking the U.S. (who stayed “neutral” but still shipped goods to European countries on both sides of the fight) submarines, naval ships, civilian ships and cargo ships left and right. #Upset, President Woodrow Wilson declared war against Germany and officially joined the Allied Powers. 

Now that we’ve all gotten a quick history lesson on WWI, we’re wondering, how did our phresh photographer Ernest Brooks get involved? He enlisted on January 25, 1915 in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and he was appointed as the Admiralty official photographer AKA he was once again charged with snapping hot shots of leaders in action. The Admiralty is Office of the Admiralty and Marine Affairs and was responsible for the command of the Royal First Navy. At the time that Ernie was appointed to this phine photography posting, Winston “All I do is Win” Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty (AKA chief Navy dude). Winston himself was a war correspondent, so he recognized the importance and value of having journalists of all sorts present on the war front to document the bravery, treachery and day-to-day life of soldiers in and out of the trenches. Ernie thus became the phirst photographer appointed by Great Britain. His first assignment was to cover the invasion of Gallipoli, which was a failed attempt by the Allied Powers to capture the Ottoman Empire’s capital, Constantinople (Istanbul was Constantinople, been a long time gone, Constantinople, now it’s Turkish delight on a moonlit night). 

In March 1916, Ernie earned a transfer from the Admiralty to the War Office. He was given the rank of Second Lieutenant and thereby knighted with the name “Official Photographer of the Western Front.” JK. That wasn’t his title, but he was promoted to be the go-to photography guy on the Western Front, where all was truly NOT quiet. There were more than 2 million troops fighting on the Western Front, which stretched 440 miles from the Swiss Border to the North Sea and was lined with trenches, barbed wire fences, dead bodies and dug-outs. In earnest, Ernest packed up his bag and grabbed his camera to join the British forces in the trenches. 

Along with his photography pal, John Warwick Brooke, Ernie came up with some photography techniques that would protect their lenses and supplies. After all, they were assigned with capturing footage of a war happening around them while trying to not only protect their shutters but also save themselves. The two used pre-prepared glass negatives and hand-held plate cameras. Ernie, though, was called out when phellow photographers learned that sometimes he recreated scenes in his images that he witnessed earlier in war. And that he also sometimes published posed photographs. He was exposed faster than a TMZ report and the British government released a policy known as Propaganda of Facts, which banned staged or fake images from the front lines. At this time, war photography was still brand new, so photographers like Ernie were figuring out what the people wanted to see. Did they want more of a visual story that could stand without words or just some shots from the warfront that would be paired with a news story? 

Brooks continued to photograph the First World War and became the longest-serving British war photographer. He captured more than 4,400 images, which represented a little over a tenth of all photographs from World War I. A large collection of his photographs can be found in various museums such as the Imperial War Museum in London (naturally), the National Portrait Gallery in D.C. and the National Library of Scotland. For his military services, Ernie was appointed a Chevalier of the Belgian Order of the Crown and was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his coverage of the 1918 Italian Campaign of the Allied Powers. After the War, Ernie returned to photographing the ~royals~ in Londontown. He even hit the road again, with the Prince of Wales on his tour of (oh) Canada, the US of A and Australia throughout 1919 and 1920. 

However, years later in 1925, for some reason unknown to anyone but those involved, Ernie was fired from his post as royal photographer and his appointment as Officer of the Order of the British Empire as well as his British Empire Medal were cancelled and annulled. Don’t @ us because we know as much as you do, which is zip. The British press did spill the tea of his demotion, but forgot to add the sugar, AKA they didn’t let anyone in on the reason. Alas, rumor has it that he got rowdy and inappropriate at a hockey game. Also, that he may have upset the royal family because he published short stories in McClure’s Magazine called “Kings, Princes, Governors,” which shared “intimate anecdotes” of the royal court. However, again, all rumors. We know nothin’!

After many years of service and skill, Ernie filed for bankruptcy in 1926. He still continued to work as a photographer until his career reached an end in 1936. Not much else is known about Ernie during the latter years of his life. He passed away in Hendon, England, in 1957. As the phirst official photographer appointed by the British military, Ernest Brooks established a lot of groundwork for all phront line photographers who followed in his footsteps. And because of that, we hereby declare him a historic shuffler.

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