Where to Find Digital and License Free Combat Images in the United States

Posted on June 25th, 2013 by in Advice, Film and TV Production

A Researcher’s Perspective: American War Photography

Unlike the rest of the world, the United States has beaucoup license free photos and moving images. We have no crown copyright fees, and basically the country’s collective cultural consciousness interprets our constitution’s quote: “a government by the people for the people” to mean anything the government creates is in the public domain; i.e., “we the people” own it. This article focuses on United States military digital archives found in three places; The Library of Congress, great for really old stuff, The National Archives, great for really old and not so old stuff, and DVIDS, Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System, great for really new stuff. It also advises on how permission is granted to access other US Military Archives.

The Library of Congress is the place where Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in the film “J. Edgar” tells his date that he invented the cataloging system there. Probably not, but in addition to being the place where Americans register their trademarks and copyrights, and now supports a digital performing rights agency for music, Sound Exchange, it has the oldest stuff; newspapers, sheet music, drawings, civil rights collections, old moving images, and much, much more. Here is a link to the many collections it has digitized: Library of Congress Digital Collections: http://www.loc.gov/library/libarch-digital.html.

But back to combat photography. President Lincoln, the guy Spielberg made a film about, not only had lots of pictures of himself taken, but I guess liked to look at pictures of whipped slaves because it was in the movie. But Lincoln took the publicity power of the then new technology, the camera, one-step further. He hired Mathew Brady and his bunch among which was, Tim O’Sullivan and Alexander Gardner, to take pictures of our Civil War (1861-1865). For the first time the public saw with their own eyes what came through the camera’s uncensored lens. Bloated, mutilated, dead bodies on battlefields and the wounded suffering of the living, presented to the public the true cost of war’s human suffering.

Combat image 1
Photographer Alexander Gardner’s Gettysburg Battlefield where General Reynolds Fell, July 1863 – National Archives.

You can find the Mathew Brady Collection in both the National Archives and The Library of Congress.

Horrific as the Civil War images are, they are a reflection of their technology. The cameras were on sticks and required the subjects to remain absolutely still. And in my research career, despite a request from a stressed out producer to find “authentic” civil war footage, there isn’t any. That came later, but footage of our Spanish American War (1898) can be found at the Library of Congress and is attributed to the Bill Gates of the time, Thomas Edison. This mogul inventor/take credit for the light bulb, telephone, phonograph, and motion picture camera is also, in my opinion, the father of the historical reenactment. Even though his cameras rolled in Cuba and the Philippines, the recreations of the Spanish American War were staged in New Jersey. You can find them in the Library of Congress at this link: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/sawhtml/sawhome.html, and at the Library of Congress’ You Tube Channel:

By 1898 the motion picture camera had evolved enough to record movement, but was still on sticks, yet the Edison reenactments are eerie harbingers of trench warfare of WWI battles to come. By the time America entered that war in 1917, the American motion picture industry had moved to the west coast not only for the sunshine, but also away from Edison’s patents. The new and improved and patented motion picture camera and film operators joined still photographers on WWI battlefields, and their photography was influenced by the artistic talents of their time.

Combat image 2
“Repairing front line trench after bomb explosion 50 yards from enemy trenches. D.W. Griffin in civilian clothing (the guy with the bow tie). During filming of the motion picture “Hearts of the World” France 1917” – National Archives

The War Department, the old name for our Defense Department, had recruited top Hollywood talent. During WWII, John Houston’s use of battle footage for his “Battle of Midway”, and Billy Wilder’s “Memphis Belle” are some examples, but the influence of the entertainment industry on the armed forces productions was enigmatic. Their newsreels were complete with energetic upbeat narration and music from military bands. These a far cry from Capt. Carter’s films of the townspeople walking past piles of dead bodies and embalmed severed heads in glass containers at Buchenwald Concentration Camp which he filmed on April 16th, 1945. General Eisenhower had demanded that the world know what happened, so he had it filmed, and ordered the people who lived nearby right to walk through and to witness the aftermath of the horrors first hand. The camera captured it all. Here’s a link to some of Captain Carter’s 3rd reel: The Story of German Atrocities – National Archives: http://media.nara.gov/cs/001/31934.wmv

The National Archives houses these films as well as countless other archives and archives of all our wars and conflicts. It is the main repository for US Military images once they are considered no longer contemporary by their respective military branches. You can search for them by going to the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) page and doing an advanced search from there.

National Archives Archival Research (ARC): http://www.archives.gov/research/arc/

In today’s digital age, everyone has a camera, including our military. You can find and download it at the DVIDS website, a hub for contemporary footage and stills from all branches of our military. Terms of use are on the website as well.

DVIDS, The Defense Video & Imagery Distribution System: http://www.dvidshub.net/

If you are planning on producing project that is about or films the US Military or uses military images, it is best to go through The Department of Defense Press Office and submit a formal request in writing that explains your use. They are very helpful and will open up doors to other military archives, including the one at March Airforce Base in Riverside, California which is treasure trove of military history in still and moving pictures. Also, their permission will greatly help with each branch of the US Military Museums and collections.

Please also be mindful of using any images still or moving without first digging down to see if there are copyright issues and restrictions. These are found on line 540 of the MARC record of each item at the Library or Congress, an example is below:

And on the Archival Description page of each item the National Archives as copied below:

And be mindful where you get copies of the images and how you are using them. Any questions, check with a United States lawyer. They need the work now that “Creative Commons” and “Fair Use” practices are in play.

by Media Match member Elizabeth Gray


Elizabeth Gray
Photo by Bethany Struble
Elizabeth Gray is a writer/researcher in Los Angeles. She has a whole bunch of credits which are mixed up on IMDB, loves her work, and makes really good pie. She can be reached at grayelizabeth (at) me (dot) com

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One Response to “Where to Find Digital and License Free Combat Images in the United States”

  1. Elizabeth Gray Says:

    As of August 2013 the National Archives ARC search engine has been replaced. The above link will go to the National Archives new search engine at this link.


    Happy searching!

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