1938 Bowman Horrors of War

While we tend to use ~1941 as the cutoff for what cards we consider to be “pre-war,” I’ve never fully felt comfortable with that date. A large part of this is due to the fact that I consider World War 2 to have started in 1931 when Japan invaded Manchuria. The fact that the 1938 Gum Inc./Bowman Horrors of War set exists underlines this point. The set is full of scenes from what is actually World War 2 in China and the proxy World War 2 which was the Spanish Civil War. It even ends with series of cards about Hitler and his impending threat to world peace.

There’s no way I can consider this set to be “pre-war” even though the hobby categorizes it as such. I’ve come around to treating the pre-war category as actually being pre-VJ Day since there are pretty much no releases after 1941. Drawing the line at 1945 avoids all the issues about deciding when the war began.

Maybe I should just start calling them pre-nuke or pre-Little Boy instead.

Anyway I had to pick up the card of “pretty Gerda Taro” being run over by a tank since I apparently can’t avoid the cards which intersect with my photography hobby. Besides stuff like Mike Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Cards* or the few cards that can be credited to specific photographers there, not surprisingly, isn’t a lot of overlap** here.

*Of which I have a Lewis Baltz.

**Instead I’m sort of searching for cards like the T218 Edward Weston which happen to have the same name as famous photographers. There’s also a PCL player named Paul Strand who has both an Obak and some Zeenut cards.

Taro’s life and work kind of got subsumed into the Capa mythos to the point where I first learned about her as Capa’s romantic partner rather than as the photojournalism pioneer she actually is. I don’t think I’m alone on this though since her work has only really been displayed on its own accord in this century.

Looking at her work turns up a few images I’m familiar with as well as a bunch of contact sheets from the Battle of Brunete where she was mortally wounded. Those sheets are all 35mm film and correspond with the fact that by this time she was shooting a Leica which looks nothing like the giant camera depicted on the card front.

Aside from depicting war and the camera looking more like the Graflex Dorothea Lange used to shoot,* the card looks pretty great. Bright and colorful with a lot of detail crammed into a small frame.** I kind of love the explosion details and how the card manages to capture the chaos while also depicting a specific moment.

*Taro shot a TLR which produced square images on 120 film before switching to 35mm. She never shot 4×5.

**The same 2.5″×3″ size as Gum Inc’s Play Ball cards.

Despite how striking they look, I have no real desire to get more of these. I’m glad it’s called the Horrors of War but when my reaction to them is superficial instead of what they depict I have to rethink my motivations. Also I kind of refuse to chase any set that puts me in a position where I’m looking for cards of Hitler.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at njwv.wordpress.com, and the web at vossbrink.net

5 thoughts on “1938 Bowman Horrors of War”

  1. Incredibly interesting set… The fact that these came out in 1938 when Europe and the Pacific were burning shows how close yet far the war was for the United States.

    I’d really like to see the full set and read all the backs.

  2. Great post. I’ve seen singles from this set before and I’ve always wanted one… just because it’s such a famous set and it’s historical. But like you mentioned, it’s not something I’d ever build. I embrace and enjoy learning about history… but this set is a little too gruesome.

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