Helen Johns Kirtland was born on March 28, 1890, to Henry W. Johns and his wife Emily Warner. After her father passed away in 1898, her mother moved the family to Lawrence Park, a turn-of-the-century arts colony in Bronxville, New York. In 1904, she spent time in Europe and attended a German school for girls. Helen and her family traveled a lot during this time period in Europe. During their travels, all of them wrote to on another. They would send most correspondence by postcard and even took a few photographs themselves. In a postcard from her mother, dated December 5, 1903, it reads, "We are just about starting out to see the town and try some photos."
Kirtland married Lucian Swift Kirtland on November 11, 1917 back in Bronxville, New York. They immediately travelled to France due to Lucian's work. Lucian worked as a reporter for the Leslie's Illustrated Weekly for World War I. Kirtland worked in Europe under the auspices of the YMCA, and as a guest of the United States Navy and Army during World War I. Just like her husband, she also became a correspondent for the Leslie's Illustrated Weekly out of France. She was perfect for the job because she had spent so much time in Western Europe, she could communicate in multiple languages, and had an instinct for photographically seeing the world.
During their time stationed in France, the Kirtlands and colleagues took pictures of one another. There is a famous shot of Helen Kirtland in the trenches with a helmet and gas mask on for protection while shooting for Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. Leslie’s Photographic Review of the Great War, published in 1919, included several pages of Helen’s war photographs. Some of the titles include: “A Woman on the Battle Front,” “Verdun - ‘They Shall Not Pass!’,” and “Winning the War from the Clouds.” Helen also focused some of her assignments towards women working during the war. Leslie Magazine published Helen's photo essay entitled “A Tribute to Women War Workers." The article focuses on the gathering that celebrated these women who supported the Allied armies and helped reduce the suffering of civilians during the war.
When the war ended, Helen wrote to her mother about her feelings by describing the country side and how difficult it was to photograph it. In another letter later on, she described to her mother about how the dismantling of the war torn countries was going.
“I did not even take a general view of the Mennin Road territory photographically for there was nothing nothing absolutely to be found in the finder - I might as well have gone out into our middle/west prairies and focused on the horizon! - and it certainly proves something when [Lucian] and I don’t snap away at a picture or two!”
"I am first beginning to get over the queer sensation of crossing the lines & wandering in no man’s land, even yet one hears tremendous explosions now & then—& these only add local color— Appropriate sounds to describe the sights! For they are of course cleaning up the country of duds as systematically as they can—My! what a job!! I’d hate to be a farmer in these parts!"
Not much is known if Helen wanted to continue to work as a photographer on her own after the war. However, she did care about claiming her own work. In a personal copy of Leslie's Photographic Review of the Great War, she penciled a notation "By H.K." beside an uncredited photograph in "The Nation Created by War" article.
By the 1920s, the Kirtlands were working as a team traveling all over the world to write and photographic the changing world. Some of the countries they went to were the Bahamas, the Philippines, France, England, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Japan, Portugal, Turkey, Burma, Indonesia, Russia. While Lucian did all the writing, Helen took the accompanying photographs to all of his articles. Most of the time, her photographs were never credited. Lucian also wrote two books dedicated to Helen and it is theorized that the images in the books are also hers.
Throughout their travels, the couple still had a home in Bronxville, New York. It housed many playwrights and writers over the years. Both Lucian and Helen died in New York. Helen Kirtland passed away 14 years after Luican, on October 3, 1979.
Written by Gwen Cinelli
Source: Library of Congress
Images: Library of Congress and Helen Kirtland
Thumbnail Image: Helen Johns Kirtland leaning on a globe. 1919. Library of Congress.