(Photo courtesy of Suzanne Opton)

SOLDIER KIMBALL: This soldier, returning after a 287-day tour of duty in Afghanistan, was photographed by Suzanne Opton at Fort Drum in upstate New York. The 32" by 40" work can be seen in "Soldier," a group of portraits of military men and women taken shortly after their return from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The exhibit will be on view through October 21 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown, Pa. The photographer will present a lecture at the museum on Tuesday, September 4, at 1 p.m. For more information, visit or call (215) 340-9800.

To Transcend War: Soldiers in the Service of Art

Stuart Mitchner

Photographer Suzanne Opton's portraits of military men and women taken shortly after their return from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are impressively accomplished works of photographic art, particularly the four immense color close-ups of the faces of soldiers who appear to be either dead or transfixed or dreaming with "eyes wide shut."

But it's hard to imagine even the most deeply embedded art critic or thoughtless museumgoer gushing out loud or in print about the "sculptural beauty" or "exquisite detail" in the faces of living subjects who have been "in harm's way" and most likely will be there again. The word "beauty" sticks in your throat. What exactly are you responding to and how can you detach your response from the implications of the ongoing catastrophe in Iraq? And when you say in all honesty how fullheartedly you support the troops, you run into the same qualifying "But — " because you have never, at least in my case, supported the war.

Serving their country, the soldiers do their duty, loyal to their commanders even up to the "commander in chief." In Suzanne Upton's photographs, the soldiers are serving the art, and however consoling it may be to think that the art is powerful enough in itself to transcend life and war and death in the area of truth and beauty Keats celebrated for all time in "Ode On a Grecian Urn," you still can't help seeing these particular soldiers as pawns, regardless of how admirably the artist presents them. Whether the human subjects fall in battle, or live out their lives, these images will live beyond them. There's the real beauty, but again, it's more palatable if regarded in the future tense. It helps to think beyond the present.

The Mission

"What I like best is to apply some provocative structure to a real moment in time," Suzanne Opton writes in her artist's statement concerning "Soldier," which will be on view through October 21 at the James A. Michener Art Museum in Doylestown. "In this case, the large color images bring to mind the heads of toppled statues or fallen warriors."

She's referring to the same abovementioned archival pigment prints on paper that are undoubtedly the most striking, and disturbing, and certainly the most provocative of the works on display in the Michener's Betz Gallery. In her statement she explains how the soldiers were posed: "I asked each soldier to lay his or her head on the table. From this vantage point the head becomes a simple object. I meant it to be isolated and vulnerable."

These four extraordinary images — each of which looks to be the size and shape of a 32-inch plasma TV screen — have to be seen in person to be appreciated. Black and white or even color newspaper reproductions can't begin to do them justice. You have to be able to see the flesh tones, and the only way to do that is to visit the museum.

The photographer's statement also contains this sentence: "The implication of being shot down was not lost on these young men and women, but the pose is also a little like seeing someone opposite you with his head on the pillow." The double meaning in "shot" also suggests the old adage that the camera "steals the soul." It's a powerful set of possibilities. The portraits you find yourself gazing at can seem as remote as death, as intimate as a bedmate, or as grim as a human head on a chopping block. The dynamic of life, death, intimacy, and violation is what makes these images provocative — that, and their real-life, every day relationship to the misadventure embattling the Bush administration and keeping the Senate up all night.

It was interesting to observe how intimidated people were by these imposing works, which are hung opposite Opton's portraits of soldiers whose heads are being held by the hands of wives or other soldiers. Of these, one woman said, "I wish they could tell us their stories" I heard no one speculating about the four much larger pieces. These stunning head shots obviously made people uneasy. The suggestion of death was too stark. Again, no one was about to speak aloud of how beautifully "done" they were; it would be worse than complimenting the handiwork of a mortician. Here were four much more brilliant, accomplished works of art than the less provocative portraits facing them, and no one felt comfortable openly appreciating them. "It looks like they're playing dead," one person said, with a shudder. And of course no one wanted to think that these young men might be redeployed and put "in harm's way" or that the mimicry of death would prove prophetic.

Baby Face

How do you respond when you see the delicate, unblemished, baby-soft face of Soldier Kimball? If you hate the war and love the soldier, you're essentially in the same position so many Americans find themselves in today. When I saw Kimball's face I did a doubletake. You figure he has to be at least 18 but this appears to be the face of a 10- or 12-year-old. How can you keep your detestation of the Iraq war from impinging on your reaction to an image glowing with innocence and a simple, all too vulnerable human beauty? And in case you associate such seeming innocence with weakness, think of baby-faced Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier in World War II who was 5'5, slightly built, fainted in basic training, and had to demand to be sent into combat. He was 19 when he first saw action, 21 at war's end.

The Toll of Days

Is the photographer's primary motive to make a political statement? (See the accompanying story on the opposite page.) I don't think so. I think she took on the subject as a challenge to her art, a creative adventure, though she had to know it would have topical and ultimately political significance. The hands holding the heads in the more conventionally sized portraits suggest compassion, though the total effect is sometimes dictated by the expression or lack of it on the subject's face. As Opton noted, "When together with their wives, the soldiers were often unresponsive to the touch of the other. We understand that the trials of war are often something shared only among comrades. They are memories that soldiers always carry with them, that separate them from the rest of society."

But notice the effect created by the way the works are identified: last name of the soldier (sometimes with rank) and number of days served in Iraq (or, in a few cases, Afghanistan):

Soldier Wright 366 Days, Soldier Keith 365 Days, Soldier Deltaph 365 Days, Hardiman 370 Days, Bensen 368 Days, Ludlow 368 Days, Rivera-Martinez 214 Days, Auvenshane 183 Days. So it goes, the count of days mounting as you look from face to face until it becomes like a mantra, a drum roll tolling out each "tour of duty" like a prison sentence.

Note: This is the first of a two-part review. Next week I'll write about the museum's related exhibit, "Fire and Ice: Marine Corps Combat Art from Afghanistan and Iraq" featuring Marine Warrant Officer Michael Fay's drawings and watercolors.

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