John F. Kennedy told Americans to ask NOT what their country could do for them, but to ask instead what THEY could do for their country! Anyone who is willing to serve their country in any capacity is, in my opinion, a notch above the crowd. But those who serve in the military, who were (and are) willing, for love of country, to basically write a blank check to Uncle Sam for everything up to and including their lives, well, those men and women are, to me, heroes all. They represent a special, but now, I think, dying breed of individuals who deeply love this country, warts and scars and all, and still see it as the last best chance for mankind.
People who steadfastly seem willing to put their life on the line for their beliefs seem, sadly, to be rapidly fading away. And those who understand the value of something as nebulous a concept as “the country” and the freedoms we enjoy seem to be fading even faster. Those that do are the stuff of which heroes are made. Heroes, real heroes that is, don’t wear capes… they wear dog tags. They don’t leap tall buildings they slog through the mud and fever infested swamps; they are not bulletproof, they bleed like the rest of us, are as vulnerable as the rest of us. But they are of much stouter stuff than those who avoid serving their country like the plague.
So when Candice Lopez, the lead faculty for Graphic Arts program at SDCC asked if I would be interested in helping out with a project to honor veterans I was instantly on board. After discussing options it was settled that I would produce 20-30 portraits of City College and local veterans that would be part of a combined exhibition with memorabilia from veterans and illustrations created during WWII by Carol Johnson.
Simple, right? After all, I did the 26 portraits of Denver’s “Movers and Shakers” for the Colorado Celebration of the Arts back in the day. And I did the collection of prints from my project “Tewa” that is now owned by Mesa Verde National Monument and is frequently a traveling exhibit. This should be simple. Accordingly my plan too was simple; set up one of the studios at school and have it always ready to shoot as Candice found and scheduled veterans for me to shoot. Then I would edit them and create the prints for the show. What could go wrong?
Following the first couple of sessions I created a standard set up in the studio which allowed me to do a quick analysis of the subject and my idea for a shot then simply tweak the light positions. Here is a light plot of the setup I used.
The main light, a 22” beauty dish chosen because of its characteristic of soft-edged but contrasty light was on a rail that easily allowed it to be moved from side to side or in the middle as seemed appropriate. The fill was a medium softbox and the two potential accent lights and the top/hair light were standard 7” scoops with grids. I had three flag-themed backdrops I rotated through the sessions. All of the shots in this collection were done with my Canon 5DSr and a Canon 85mm f1.8 prime lens then edited in Photoshop CC2014™.
We had veterans from WWII to the latest middle east conflicts. Many were City College Students and Faculty. The list also included men and women and a wide variety of ethnicities but the black and white final prints helped homogenize them into their common characteristic for our show: they all were willing to serve their country when it asked them.
The shooting sessions were a hoot; I enjoyed meeting these outstanding individuals. The editing too went smoothly as there was minimal editing needed. (As an aside for those curious about the camera, although it was the R model of the 5DS with the anti aliasing filter disabled, I found NO moire patterns anywhere.)
But it was a different story when it came time to make and hang the prints. The first thing to go wrong was that it turned out there was no, I mean ZERO… budget so my initial plan to have these prints be either face mounted or printed on metal. But that would have cost, even with a very substantial discount, well over $2,000. My piggy bank was a bit short of such funds.
Candice initially wanted me to just make prints and hang them, unmounted and unmatted, which was something my sensibilities would just not let me do. However, Candice already had a method of hanging things which she wanted to use that unfortunately was designed for posters and loose hanging art work. So I compromised. I made the portraits to be mounted and wrapped on 20” x 30” foamcore panels that sat out from the wall.
I ordered a roll of beautiful velvet textured paper from Breathing Color and made the prints. Three things went wrong immediately: (a) this heavy weight paper had a beautiful surface and dynamic range but really was designed for mounting/matting and framing. It was so thick I had a major problem wrapping it around the standard foamcore I had already purchased; plus (b) the rich surface was incredibly soft so prints scuffed and scratched when you just breathed on them, and (c) I got self-stick board to make the assembly fast and east and the printer paper would not adhere to the board.
Oh for joy!
I also used the same technique for the panels for me and Carol Johnson, the WWII artist whose work is also on display.
Now I had to tape down the wrapped edges which the heavyweight paper fought every inch of the way. Just moving the prints on and off of the table scuffed them despite trying to always lay them on the slick release paper that came with the self-adhesive surface.
Then the perfect 3M linen paper hanger tabs to use to clip onto them were no longer available having been replaced by the excellent but very costly “Command” system. I was down to the wire and ready to fabricate the hangers out of Duct Tape when my shooting partner Cynthia said she knew what I was looking for and sure she could find them. Although what she came up with was not exactly what I was seeking it worked perfectly and saved me some enormous time in finalizing the prints.
Finally, they were ready to hang… Well except for a missing veteran discovered when I did a print count and was one short of her catalog list. WHAT?!?!?!? And then the two hangers on each print rated to hold ten pounds each LET GO on several prints during the night even though the foamcore-wrapped prints weighs under a pound each. Plus it was hard to tell what actually had let loose to to be safe we simply reinforced ALL of the tape holding the hangers on… and crossed our fingers.
But, I am thrilled to report, once on the wall in the gallery, wow, they really do look pretty good. The unframed look which I was not sold on, to be honest, is clean and graphic and works with the clean “vitrines” (low table-like display cases viewed from the top) where the other art work is displayed.
Seeing my prints up on the wall for the first time was like looking at someone else’s work; nice but a bit surreal and disorienting in a way. Pleasant and thrilling as it was, it was also a little unnerving. Now – to me – my hyper critical eye saw every scuff, every mar, every edge that did not fold correctly and I was, of course, sure that every single visitor to the show would see them all too and wonder why the photographer allowed them to show.
A reporter from San Diego’s major newspaper came to review the show but when he looked at one that had some scuffs on it instead of pointing those out he pronounced the photo as “beautiful.” An instructor took a preliminary look and pronounced them to look like Karsh portraits. Wow, Yousef Karsh was my portraiture idol, there could be no greater compliment to me than that. So I realized it was time to relax. It is what it is and hopefully to the majority of the visitors the work and the subjects will overpower the scuffs instead of the other way around.
Here are a couple of examples. (In Part Two that I will try to post by the end of this week, I’ll show a gallery of the images.)
And below is his son, James Reily Jr.
My photos are not the only pieces in the show; there is also a wonderful collection of about 80 of the WWII sketches done by Carol Johnson during the North African campaign, an acclaimed illustrator and artist. Johnson’s art work illustrated some of Ernie Pile’s books and innumerable articles on the progress of that campaign. They are truly wonderful pieces, kindly loaned to us by Johnson’s grandson. It is an honor for me to be able to share display space with these outstanding drawings. Here are a couple of examples:
It is my hope that for those survivors of past and current conflicts who asked what they could do for their country and had an answer, this project can raise at least a small belated voice to say we appreciate you. Even if we were opposed to everything about that war, individuals who were willing to heed the call when their country asked them to step forward ought, of right, be recognized and thanked. Soldiers are not policy makers, but their service and sacrifices have allowed us to live in a country defined more by its freedoms than its restraints.
The Clan Crest of my Scottish ancestry displays a motto, “Ne Obliviscarus,” which. from Latin to Celtic/Gaelic through tortured English means, “Never Forget.” We should never forget the sacrifices of time, blood, and sometimes life itself our veterans have made for us. Their sacrifices have made it possible for us to enjoy the freedoms we have as American Citizens including, sometimes, the freedom to be idiots. I hope our work in preparing and installing this show will help the viewers to honor these and the millions of other veterans past, present, and yet to come and to help us to never forget.
The show’s opening reception was a hit beyond my wildest expectations. It was to run from 6-8pm but people started showing up shortly after 5 while we were still setting up. Here are a couple of pictures I took that night with my little Canon 120S point and shoot.
For much of the evening it was shoulder to shoulder crowds. Candice and I were beseiged with people thanking us for the show which included many of the vets portrayed being there in person to tell their stories. Their presence really brought the portraits to life and made the show so much more than just a collection of images.
In part two I’ll show all of the photos on a gallery style page.