Everyone, it is said, experiences war differently. In the exhibit,The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now, the National Portrait Gallery presents six such perspectives.
The exhibit’s organizers assembled it to get past a creeping tendency for U.S. troops and veterans to become “props” for advertising and feel-good salutes. They wanted to remind viewers of the “human dimension” of a war that is all too often invisible to broad swaths of Americans. Stylistically, some of the works on view harken back to cartoonist Bill Mauldin’s gritty portrayals of World War II grunts; others take more unusual approaches.
Louie Palu’s photographs are among the most traditional—straightforward portraits, in both black-and-white and color, of military men and women. In many, the subject’s eyes seem dead, especially when offset by the grime and camo paint covering their faces. It’s hard not to wonder: Is this weariness permanent, or just a moment captured in time?
Another relatively traditional body of work comes from Stacey L. Pearsall—save for the obvious fact that she’s broken barriers as a female combat photographer. The aluminum Pearsall uses to mount her unframed, color prints often adds an ethereal quality to her work, as in the image of an Army private standing in rustic quarters, his head and body wrapped in wreaths of blue-toned smoke. Taking a documentary approach, Pearsall captures images that range from humdrum to deeply emotional – from games of “rock baseball” or free time spent watching TV cartoons to grieving for lost colleagues.
The most celebrated of the six artists, the late Tim Hetherington, also took a documentary approach, though one that was more subjective. At times, Hetherington documented action, such as the image of a soldier running with a gun as a helicopter hovers over his shoulder, or a bunch of sweaty men at an outpost digging holes. Other times, his images are more enigmatic, notably those of soldiers sleeping, in which viewers are left to speculate what is running through their minds.
Less traditional in format us Vincent Valdez’ video memorial for Lt. John Holt Jr., a close friend who died in December 2009 amid complications from PTSD. To a mournful soundtrack from The Pogues, Valdez superimposed a flag-draped coffin moving slowly “home” through footage of a succession of hometown haunts.
Emily Prince, meanwhile, assembled a montage of hand-drawn faces of the fallen—a testament not just to her down-to-earth artistry but also to her research skills. (She scoured the Web and other sources to discover her subjects.) They are structured on the gallery walls like a blend of a Scrabble board, a periodic table of the elements, and—most appropriately—a memorial quilt. Provocatively, Prince’s construction pegs its background shades to the skin tone of the deceased.
The exhibit’s most compelling tack is Ashley Gilbertson’s—simple, black-and-white images of the bedrooms once inhabited by those felled either in combat or due to PTSD. The ordinary objects enshrined in these quiet rooms—from stuffed animals to rock posters to baseball caps—offer indelible reminders of how young the fallen soldiers are, packing an emotional wallop. Gilbertson’s photographs are a reminder that absence sometimes creates a more powerful image than presence.
Through Jan. 28, 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets N.W., Daily, 11:30 a.m.-7 p.m.