The Eyes of War
An exhibit of war photography by Stacy Pearsall, Jeremy Lock, and Jack Bailey
Through Dec. 31
Center for Photography, Alterman Studios
654-D King St.
(Complete slideshows at end of article)
When I learned of an exhibit at the Center for Photography at Alterman Studios featuring the war portfolios of three Air Force photographers, I was skeptical.
First, because pictures of military action in Iraq and Afghanistan are censored by the U.S. Department of Defense. Second, because combat imagery can be highly political or at least susceptible to partisanship (recall the controversy over flag-draped coffins returning for burial at the beginning of the Iraq war).
Would the exhibit be pro-war or anti-war? Would it fuel Jeremiahs like Cindy Sheehan and Nancy Pelosi? Would it egg on Cassandras like Rush Limbaugh and Christopher Hitchens? Would it obscure the war’s emotional traumas and death toll or would it exaggerate its brief moments of warmth and peace?
Moreover, it’s been five years since the so-called war on terror began. The armed forces are overextended, the citizenry is disaffected, our commander in chief is a lame duck, the media are devalued, and the crowded presidential campaign, the outcome of which will test the political accumen of the current administration’s foreign policy, is just getting started.
How affecting, aesthetically speaking, can a war exhibit be when we’re already exhausted and have yet more battle fatigue, as it were, to look forward to?
The answer, I’m glad to report, is plenty.
The show, by Air Force sergeants Stacy Pearsall, Jeremy Lock, and Jake Bailey, comprises photographs printed on large-format, high-quality paper. It’s arranged to occupy most of the center’s 1,200 feet of space. And it’s smartly lit, illuminating a wealth of technique, perspective, and individual personality.
While it would be naive to suggest they are free of bias, these photographs are still a part of the tapestry of human record: attempts to represent the chaos of war in an accurate way — at least not in a misleading way. As such, this assemblage of black-and-white and color prints doesn’t depend on politics for its power and effect. Instead, it accomplishes both by being honest and artful about a subject that increasingly more people are tired of talking about.
Pearsall, Lock, and Bailey are part of a tradition of representing war. It’s that primal urge, perhaps genetically founded and inspired, to document world events. What’s different now, though, is that they’ve accomplished something noteworthy in one of the most politically charged eras in U.S. history.
Herodotus, in The Histories, documented the battles of empires but he was also trying to capture the epic feats and god-like power and mystique of great men. Machiavelli, in The Prince, matter-of-factly argued in western civ’s first handbook to the amoral strategies of Realpolitik that a prince by definition is someone willing to war, especially in peacetime: “The art of war is all that is expected of a ruler,” he wrote in 1505.
But neither of them worried about appearing partisan. They just were.
Robert Graves, the English poet and author of Good-bye to All That, a memoir that includes his experience soldiering in the First World War, anticipated the theater of the absurd. His style was to get funnier the more terrifying the recollecton was. “Graves is a tongue-in-cheek neurasthenic farceur whose material is ‘facts’,” wrote literary historian Paul Fussell in The Great War and Modern Memory.
Michael Herr, in 1977’s Dispatches, wrote a series of tripped-out tableaux. Each is full of hallucinatory ennui alternating with scenes of surreal violence and horror. Later came Anthony Swofford, a marine sniper during the Gulf War and author of Jarhead, who in 2003 gave war the tabloid treatment: “Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn,” he writes. ” … death and carnage are pornography for the military man.”
None of these writers were conscious of misrepresenting their experiences.
They were writers. They worked alone. No one ordered them to censor the filter of the imagination.
Pearsall, Lock, and Bailey, however, had it hard. The Defense Department looked over their shoulders. What I find fascinating is the extent to which their efforts succeed: Using the seemingly unmediated power of photography, they have remained personal in their expression while pushing back the forces of genre and history (as well as former Secretary Rummy’s secretive and Prince-like vetting policy).
Dioramas of normalcy
Pearsall is a 27-year-old decorated veteran. She won the Bronze Star for Valor under Combat and a Purple Heart while taking shots with Army units in Iraq. She’s the storyteller. Her strength is portraiture in black-and-white and color. With that convention, she expresses a range of emotions set in time and place.
In two photographs, she captures the fatigue and sheer boredom (as well as the thick haze of cigarette smoke) of two soldiers struggling to stay awake after guarding an Iraqi police station for three straight days. In another, she snaps the boyish spirit of a soldier horsing around. His look is intent and joyful as he’s about to hit a stone with an aluminum baseball bat. In one particularly moving color shot, an Iraqi woman holds her hands to her mouth, an expression of deep grief crying from the frame, the shot so clear you can see the crags in her poor, worn face.
My favorite of Pearsall’s portrays two soldiers in an apartment, one keeping watch out the window through which white light is pouring while the other sits in a wobbly plastic chair, the butt of a huge automatic rifle resting on his right thigh, to watch TV. The scene is like a diorama of normalcy: plain, colorful, domestic, familial, comfortable.
Bailey is the humanist, the voyeur of the visage. Two powerful images still with me as I write this are unlike each other. One is in color. It depicts a girl, about 8, with striking green eyes and frazzled hair. While the image is lacking in composition (a stray baby’s foot got in the frame), the feeling of the subject is crystal clear: Her hands are locked in a tense, anxious grip.
The other (none of these photos have names, by the way, just catalog numbers) is in black-and-white, Bailey’s strongest mode of expression. It shows the aftermath of an 1,000-pound bomb’s detonation. Debris is scattered everywhere, white chips and flakes of stuff punctuated with black. The largest and clearest object is a dark leather shoe, an imposing, iconic reminder that the foot that once filled it has vanished.
The work of Jeremy Lock is more abstract, more conceptual. He drains his images of overt human visual cues only to infuse them with shapes, forms, and patterns that elicit empathy even more powerfully.
In one, a splash of bright satin blue contrasts a sandy textured background: a Muslim woman wearing a burka walks down an alley along an ancient-looking stone wall. In another, the best I think, shows three soldiers getting off a helicopter, maybe a Chinook (it’s hard to tell). The men appear small, as if the size of toy soldiers. The scale suggsts the significance, the human value, of men in the face of war.
The Eyes of War documents and renders artful something that’s fundamentally ugly. In time, perhaps its creators will achieve more novel things in life and their depictions of war won’t seem so normal.