Vietnam Photographs from North Carolina Veterans by Martin Tucker

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.

–Michael Keating

Vietnam: Another Look by Skip Nelson

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Skip Nelson’s Vietnam: Another Look (White Lotus, 100 pp., $69.99, hardcover; $54.99, paper; $9.99, e book) is a classic travel photo book, except that it welcomes Vietnam veterans back to a country they never knew. Peacetime Vietnam, as viewed through Nelson’s lens, is lovely and gracious—not at all the hell so many veterans remember.

“Friendly faces and gentle natures are everywhere,” Nelson writes. There are no sad people in these pages, no one crushed by poverty or neglect, no mourners, no spurned lovers. The colors are lush and saturated—vibrant reds, rich blues, and warm yellows—as befits a semitropical culture, although one that was seldom displayed to Americans during the war.

In fact, as Nelson clearly shows, there was a lot that America’s GIs didn’t have time to admire: gilded temples, underground river grottoes, delightfully fresh food, the Cham ruins in Quy Nhon. Both as treat and travel invitation, he has lovingly documented the people and places of Vietnam.

Nelson also includes a good number of photos from Hanoi, which will be a pleasant surprise for most Americans.

Nelson’s affection for Vietnam and its people is apparent. That’s the book’s greatest strength: It’s pushed him to look longer and harder at this former enemy. But it’s also the book’s one shortcoming: Looking through a lover’s eyes, he’s all but blind to its faults. Vietnam is a vibrant, interesting country, but it is certainly no idyll.

Nonetheless, Skip Nelson documents a society eager to plunge into the 21st century while remaining firmly rooted in a strong, traditional culture. It’s striking, too, that the French presence is still here in graceful, European residences, opera houses, and French-influenced cuisine. The French were a colonial power, of course, and they were there much longer than the Americans were. What remains of the American presence? Hardly a trace.

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Nelson has assembled a beautiful collection of photographs in Vietnam: Another Look. Veterans owe it to themselves to give it a careful look—if only to see perhaps for the first time the country that profoundly altered their own lives.

The author’s website is www.vietnamanotherlook.com

—Michael Keating