A Silhouette of Liberia by Michael H. Lee

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During his 1969 tour of duty in Vietnam Michael H. Lee developed an interest in documentary photography. He came back to Montana after the war, went to school, got married, and got restless. So he and his wife signed up with the Peace Corps and went to Liberia.

While there, Lee honed his photographic interests and skills. He lived first in the capital of Monrovia, then moved to the hinterlands. Both places offered rich subject matter, although each posed different challenges in approach and cultural sensitivity.

A Silhouette of Liberia: Photographs: 1974-1977 (Sweetgrass Books, 124 pp. $59, lhardcover) is Lee’s second book documenting the people and culture of Liberia. This oversize volume contains nearly seventy images, some in black and white, but most in full color. The photos are accompanied by his notes and explanations of Liberian customs and culture.

Lee was a serious student of Liberian folkways, and clearly takes pleasure in sharing what he learned during his years there—first with the Peace Corps, then working for a virus research lab. His photos are lush, insightful, and respectful.

He notes that Liberians, while not vain, are proud. So, before he took his photos, Lee would wait, for example, for old women to put on their shoes and arrange their dresses.

Lee is intent upon telling a loving, respectful tale, and he tells it well.

The author’s website is awelllitblackhole.com

—-Michael Keating

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Grunts by Ed Eckstein

The first photograph in Ed Eckstein’s Grunts: The Last U.S. Draft, 1972 (Schiffer, 128 pp., $24.99) is a stark black-and-white shot of ten young men walking single file into the U.S. Army Examining and Entrance Station in downtown Philadelphia in December of 1972. The last one is a pic of four guys in a Jeep at Ft. Jackson, South Carolina.

In between, Eckstein’s camera chronicles what happens as the men get processed into the Army at the AFEEs station, get sworn in, arrive at Fort Jackson for more processing, and then go through Basic Training.

Eckstein undertook this assignment nearly five decades ago for a magazine called Youth. “I was probably the first photographer to be embedded in a basic training platoon,” Eckstine says in the book’s short introduction.* “I was given complete, uncensored access to the rituals of basic training during the time I spent there. I hope these photos convey, in unflinching detail, the rigors of basic training, juxtaposed with the vulnerability of the young soldiers.”

That’s exactly what these stark, un-posed, black-and-white, caption-less photos do. The images need no captions. Every one of them will hit home with anyone who went through the process during the Vietnam War.

—Marc Leepson

*Another professional photographer, Dick Durrance, who was drafted into the Army in June 1966, took photographs (also black and white) starting with his time at the induction center at Hamilton, New York. He kept shooting on the train ride to Fort Jackson and at Basic Training there, as well as Infantry Advanced Individual Training (AIT), and throughout his subsequent tour of duty in the Vietnam War. He published a selection of those striking photographs in his 1988 book, Where War Lives.

Fighting for Freedom by Charles F. Bolden Jr. and Gail Lumet Buckley

Charles F. Bolden Jr., and Gail Lumet Buckley’s Fighting for Freedom (D Giles, 80 pp., $16.95, paper) is the fifth in the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Double Exposure” series. The book contains a series of captivating photos from the Civil War to the present day of men and women in uniform.

Though the writing is brief, tantalizing details emerge about African American military history most of us know nothing about. The writing accompanying the images is succinct and clear, adding enticing details.

The photos themselves, all sixty-two of them, are stunning in their beauty and power. There are many of groups of African American men and women troops, as well as single portraits and snapshots. It is striking to see photos of handsome young men, smiling with pride on the way to war. They are healthy and dignified, knowing they are going to serve their country. Then there are the images of men back from battle, their faces haunted, their shoulders slumped, exhaustion and pain etched in their faces.

Quite a few women are included, such Capt. Della Raney, who in 1942 became the first African American nurse accepted into the Army Nurse Corps, and all of the female members of the all-black, World War II 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.

There is a photo of military training at Tuskegee, as well as one of a smaller group of Tuskegee airmen; a stereoscopic image of African American volunteers in the Philippines in 1899; a shot of Gen. Lloyd Austin III, the former Commanding General of American forces in Iraq; and one of two unidentified soldiers giving the soul power salute in Vietnam in 1967.

There are also a few photos of African American people going about their everyday lives—a wedding, a woman in a park in Washington, D.C.—that remind us that before and after war many black people had to fight for their own freedoms here at home. And that they had lives like everyone else— memories, pain, glories, and joys.

The book contains no preaching or proselytizing, making it even an even more powerful look at African Americans’ military experiences.

—Loana Hoylman

1000 Yard Stare by Marc C. Waszkiewicz

Many fine photography books have come out of the Vietnam War. Some, like Larry Burrows’, are breathtaking achievements that meld art, science, and a profound depiction of war. Others—often just as compelling—bring together images by multiple photographers. Marc Waszkiewicz’ 1000 Yard Stare: A Marine’s Eye View of the Vietnam War (Stackpole Books, 328 pp., $39.95, hardcover and Kindle) is neither of these, although at first that’s not apparent.

With the help of by Lea Jones and Crista Dougherty, Waszkiewicz—who served three Vietnam War tours as an artillery forward observer—has produced instead a fine photo album chock full of compelling images. As in all photo albums, the most recurring subject is its author.

That’s not a bad thing. What we get are photos Waszkiewicz took and some his buddies took. Between them all, Waszkiewicz does a very good job of presenting a visual record of his tour in Vietnam—and afterward. With insatiable curiosity he records the countryside, the villagers, the combatants, the prisoners, and the weaponry.

But more importantly, he also records his life and the lives of the young Marines with whom he served. Sometimes they were frightened, sometimes grieved, and sometimes they were just goofy. Waszkiewicz captures something that most Vietnam War photo books miss: the spunky resilience of the young American men who served there; their inability to consider themselves victims; and their indefatigable insistence on making the best of bad situations.

Waszkiewicz in Vietnam in 1969

There’s not a bad joke left untold, not a single joint left unsmoked. He and his fellow troops worked hard and played hard. If you had to be in hell, you should do your best to dupe the devil. And if you had to be in Vietnam during the war, Marc Waszkiewicz was a good guy to have around.

The last part of the book record trips he made with other veterans to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and to Vietnam. As the chapter title suggests, these trips are about trying to find peace.

These later images lack the sharp, compelling edge of the Vietnam War photos, but they’re quite nice.

Sort of like life itself.

—Michael Keating

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History

The Vietnam War: The Definitive Illustrated History (DK, 360 pp., $40) is a coffee-table book that probably is not “the definitive” history of the war in words and pictures–but it comes close. Long on photos and other images (more than 500) and relatively short on words, the book (written by a group of historians in association with the Smithsonian Institution) concisely covers just about every political and military event associated with the Vietnam conflict from the French War in the 1950s to Indochina in the 21st century.

In between, chronologically presented, concisely written, profusely illustrated chapters zero in virtually every conceivable component of the war. Most of the short chapters deal with military and political history. But there also are images of war hardware (infantry weapons, artillery, aircraft, and armored vehicles), along with diagrams and maps.

Near the end there’s a two-page chapter, “American Homecoming,” that looks at Vietnam veterans’ homecoming. As is the case with the book’s other chapters, this one is concise and accurate. It includes a picture of a Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair panhandling, an image of the Purple Heart, an iconic shot of the big crowd at The Wall in Washington when it was dedicated in 1992, and a picture of a Desert Storm victory parade.

And this closing sentence:

“Vietnam veterans today stand alongside those who have served in the various theaters of the war on terrorism as worthy heroes—however shocking the new mantra of “Thank you for your service” may be to Vietnam veterans who experienced a totally different reception when they came home.”

The book’s inside covers are made up of collages of more than a hundred photos of photos submitted by Vietnam veterans.

—Marc Leepson

Focus on Vietnam by Steven Burchik

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Steven Burchik served as a sergeant with D Company of the 1st Infantry Division’s 2nd Battalion, 18th Infantry Regiment in Vietnam in 1968-69. Burchik was a forward observer, not a photographer, but he often had his camera with him. During his tour he took more than four thousand photographs. None of combat, he notes, since that’s when he was using a rifle—not a camera.

Burchik mailed the film to his wife, and didn’t see his prints or slides for the first time until after he returned from Vietnam. “It was an amazing experience to view them and remember the circumstances surrounding each image,” he writes in the introduction to Focus on Vietnam (Sharlin-K Press, 120 pp., $29, paper).

After that memorable experience, Burchik boxed up the photos and rarely looked at them until he was asked in 2013 to make a presentation on the war to a high school English class. Speaking to the class reignited his interest in the Vietnam War, and he wrote and published Compass and a Camera: A Year in Vietnam in 2014, followed by Focus on Vietnam.

You won’t find any Great Photographs in this new volume—no decisive moments, no grand tableaux, no epiphanies, no perfect compositions, no “Oh my God” images. The Vietnam War produced many great photographers—many unheralded—who left a trove of images of the beauty, the horror, the cruelty, and the kindnesses that resulted from America’s involvement in the conflict. Burchik is not one of them.

He took for himself a more prosaic task: depicting the daily life of the combat soldier.

Focus on Vietnam is arranged thematically into short chapters, each with brief introductory notes combined with relevant photos. The chapters reflect the interests of young Americans serving halfway around the world: weapons and transportation, children and villagers, Saigon and stand-downs, wading through rivers and tracking through jungles, pacification and the rice harvest. Burchik, curious and fresh-eyed, kept his camera by his side and recorded the life that passed before him.

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That’s the book’s power: a record of one man’s life as it is swept into a tidal wave of events far beyond his control. Everyone else depicted in his book, both American and Vietnamese, has similarly been swept up by the war. Yet daily life goes on, perhaps having taken on a sort of exotic sheen or at least an awareness that those involved are living history.

Burchik’s book, perhaps, will be best appreciated by those who have served and those who may soon serve. His images are fascinating yet familiar.

The author’s website is stevenburchik.com

–Michael Keating

U.S. Elite Forces by Marti Demiquels

U.S. Elite Forces: Uniforms, Equipment & Personal Items, Vietnam, 1965-1975 (Andrea Press/Casemate, 250 pp., $61), is a collection of more than a thousand photos of virtually every uniform, piece of equipment, and weapon used by U.S. Army advisors, LRRPs, Special Forces, and Marine, Navy and Air Force elite units in the Vietnam War.

Author Marti Demiquels somehow managed to gather hundreds of uniforms, military equipment, and weapons and photographed them for the book. He organizes the book into sections on units and uniforms (including head gear and footwear), weapons (broken down into firearms and grenades and ammunition), edged weapons (knives and machetes), and demolition charges. The equipment is presented in categories such as radios, survival (vests, markers, signal kits, compasses), and medical gear.

Demiquels also includes a long section that contains photo spreads of what he calls the “personal memorabilia” of elite unit veterans. The page for former 1st Sgt. Rick Grabianowski, who served with a MACV-SOG recon company in Vietnam in 1970, for example, includes two snapshots of Grabianowski in Vietnam, a photo of a silk flag with the MACV-SOG logo, and a 101st Airborne Division death card.

This coffee-table book is an illustrated paean to American special forces in the Vietnam War—and a useful reference book for anyone interested in looking at the things they carried and wore in the war.

—Marc Leepson