There are two kinds of photo searches. One is a focused, narrow pursuit of a particular subject or time. The other is more meandering, more casual, and the results are more often than not delightful surprises.
Vietnam Photographs from North Carolina Veterans: The Memories They Brought Home (The History Press, 192 pp. $26.99, paper; $12.99, Kindle) is an example of the latter. While teaching photography at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Navy veteran (1967-69) Martin Tucker conceived the idea of soliciting negatives from area Vietnam War veterans for students to use to practice their darkroom-printing skills. As side benefits, veterans would receive high-quality prints; the students, a history lesson.
The project both failed and succeeded beyond Tucker’s dreams. Most of the veterans didn’t have negatives; they had prints. Many had been stored away for decades. As word got out and Tucker’s benevolent intentions were confirmed, though, images started coming in. Soon there were thousands—all of which needed to be carefully scanned and cataloged.
Recognizing the significance of the collection he had inadvertently amassed, Tucker edited the images down to a manageable number. Then he printed and framed them, and exhibited the collection at the Sawtooth School. The veterans were invited to the exhibit, and their reactions to their images recorded. They became the captions for the photos in the book. The exhibit toured the country for two years and is now permanently housed at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
The book does not attempt a narrative. It simply presents photographs taken by young troops of a very novel world they had fallen into. Sometimes facing images repeat themes or concerns; more often, they don’t. There are photos of Vietnamese people and others of the countryside. But mostly these are photos of the young men themselves navigating a strange, enticing, and very dangerous terrain.
The book does not contain photos of combat or lurid depictions of the war. Nonetheless, the war lurks behind every image. The book shows the things that the young men of North Carolina saw during their tours: The way they lived, the guys they hung out with, and the everyday experiences they shared. At their best, these are the clear-eyed, optimistic, and ever-curious images of American young men.
Mike Callahan, at the end of a Vietnam photo album he assembled for his daughter, wrote: “For sure, I did other things, some tedious, some terrible. This accounting is what I choose to remember and it is how I would like to be remembered.”
Callahan’s remarks, which conclude this volume, could speak for the entire book.