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

Shooting War by Anthony Feinstein

Anthony Feinstein’s Shooting War: 18 Profiles of Conflict Photographers (Glitterati Editions, 224 pp., $50) isn’t a photo book. It’s about war photographers; each one’s profile usually is accompanied by a single photo. Despite the striking Vietnam War image on the cover, anyone expecting the book to center around that conflict will be disappointed. Only two profiles are about photographers who covered that war. Just one of the profiled photographers—Chim Seymour—worked in World War II.

Conflicts have continued since 1975, and the men and women profiled here—several born after the conclusion of the Vietnam War—courageously documented fighting in such places as Serbia, the Central Africa Republic, South Africa, Libya, and Israel. Feinstein interviewed each photographer (or friends or relatives in the cases of Alexandra Boulat and Tim Hetherington, both of whom died in the conflicts they covered), then wrote individual essays describing their work, their motivations, the personal cost of their occupations, and what they witnessed.

Don McCullin has made a life’s work of covering conflict, including the Vietnam War. He was there at Hue during Tet ‘68, documenting some of the worst of the fighting. His stunning image of a battled-fatigued American Marine in Hue graces the cover of the book. Feinstein—a University of Toronto psychiatry professor who won a Peabody for his documentary Under Fire: Journalists in Combat—considers McCullin’s “intoxicating allure of war itself,” and compares his work to Goya’s etchings, The Disasters of War, which depicted Napoleon’s occupation of Spain.

“The name Tim Page is synonymous with the Vietnam War,” Feinstein writes. Page’s up-close images of that war are well known, as is his delight in working alongside the troops. Despite serious head injuries and obvious PTSD, Page recalls the war Vietnam with awe:

“What a great place to have a war,” he told Feinstein. “Good-looking women, great food, beaches, and the best dope.”

—Michael Keating

Face to Face by Don Fox

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At first blush, it’s easy to dismiss Don Fox’s Face to Face: Images from a Different War (Old Goat Press, $35, hardcover; $20, paper), with its uninspired cover montage and the erratic quality and sizing of the photos. Easy to dismiss, that is, as another in a crowded field of ill-conceived self-published books of war photos.

It’s not. The book is a masterful meditation on War and the Other. Don Fox, a VVA life member, grew up in rural Pennsylvania. The Vietnam War provided his first look at a different culture—a culture that clearly mesmerized him when he served a year in country in 1966-67.

The 19-year-old Fox—a “Good Morning, Vietnam” disc jockey on Armed Forces Radio in Saigon—spent untold hours on the streets photographing its inhabitants. But when he returned to the States, he put several hundred Ektachrome slides in a cardboard box and stored them in the basement. During his life’s moves Fox always took that box with him, but somehow the slides wound up in the basement. Half a century later, when he finally opened the box, Fox found that his slides were badly damaged. Mildew had eaten into the film emulsion of many; others were water stained.

But what surprised Don Fox is that he remembered each shot: the place, the situation, his intention, his shyness, his excitement. He realized, too, that the images had been percolating in his head for all that half century. He had never really left them behind.

So he spent a year laboring to restore images and assemble them into a book. The restorations were uneven, yet curiously even the ravages of time and neglect have somehow been incorporated into the images. As Fox writes in his Epilogue, this book is the work of two photographers. One is a “naïve, fresh-out-of-high-school soldier”; the other, a “world-weary retired English teacher.”

The result is a beautiful album arranged in a straightforward format: photographs on the right, brief commentaries on the left-hand pages. Often the remarks are Fox’s own reflections. Other times, he’s employed the crystalline thoughts of others, such as the novelist Tim O’Brien and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

For example, Fox presents a photo of woman in front of a collapsible gate with her face illuminated by a single ray of light. The facing page quotes the 18th century Vietnamese poet Nguyen Du: “Alone, in silence, she beheld the moon,/ her heart a raveled coil of hopes and dreams.”

There are more than two dozen photos in this slender volume, including several I could live with for a very long time. One is of an innocent, curious child in a crowd looking back at the photographer while everyone else is concealed by scarves or conical hats.

afvnlogoAnother is a child held on the shoulders of an old man. “At first what caught my eye was the contrast between the old man’s gnarled hands and the smooth face of this little girl,” Fox writes. “But the true contrast is seen in the young child’s ancient eyes.”

In yet another remarkable photo a woman carries two huge pots with a shoulder pole, her face obscured. The background is a gated storefront. Her belly is swollen with child.

“And when I see the sun reflecting off her conical hat,” Fox writes, “I see her halo.”

To order, go to Fox’s website, oldgoatpress.com

–Michael Keating

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

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

Contrasts of War edited by Larry Johns

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Contrasts of War: Vietnam War Images from U.S. Army Medic Bob “Doc” Shirley (Red1Publishing, 100 pp., $29, paper) is a conjurer’s trick, in the best sense. By juxtaposing fragments of poems by veteran Michael Monfrooe and refugee Chay Douangphouxay with the simple, elegiac photographs of Bob Shirley, the book attempts to transport the reader to war-torn Vietnam—its beauty, its starkness, its horror, its humidity.

It’s a story of men and children. Women, too, are portrayed, but not as often as helicopters. Nor were they as important. There are mothers and old women, and there’s a marvelous image of a barely dressed performer at a remote base gyrating on a makeshift stage as the men stand in rapt attention. But the focus immediately returns to the young American soldiers and the even younger local urchins attracted to them.

As a medic, Shirley had greater access than most. His photographs are straightforward and unadorned. They show soldiers at rest and during combat. His images of helicopters in defoliated forests are stark. His men are tense, even at rest. His children are inscrutable, serious far beyond their years—even when smiling.

In one photo five men stand awkwardly on the edge of a landing zone surrounded by a nearly leafless forest. The helicopter overhead, judging by the scant attention being paid to it, is rising away from the scene. On the facing page reads:

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere
A wasteland of lost innocence,
Covered in a cloud of smoke,
Screaming of deadly silence,
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere.
–Chay

In another photo, also in pale color, two men—seated, shirtless, and still—face the camera. One, smoking a cigarette, appears several times in the book. The facing page reads:

Common Bond

Just two American boys conceived through the draft,
Brothers borne in the womb of war.
–Chay

Shirley’s are not great photographs, but they are clean and honest. Nor are the poetic fragments of Douangphouxay and Monfrooe great poetry. But magic sparks from the juxtaposition and the conversation that’s generated between words and images.

Larry Johns is the impresario who pulled it all together. In trying to make sense of his older brother Jeffrey’s death in Vietnam in 1969, he visited the country several times and even built a memorial there to his brother.

Working with these three artists, Johns’ skillfully woven collection of poems and photographs stimulate the subconscious into a greater understanding of the past.

–Michael Keating

Vietnam: Memories in Verse by Ken Williamson

Ken Williamson was an Army photographer in 1969. His fine photographs are on the front and back covers and throughout his new little book of poetry, Vietnam: Memories in Verse (Photo Gallery on the Net, 34 pp., $14.95, paper).

There is a great color photograph of Williamson taken at Cam Ranh Bay in 1969. He had just learned of his assignment to 815th Engineers in Pleiku. Later he was transferred to the 26th Public Information Detachment, USACAV. The color photos are a strong part of the book.

Williamson traveled the entire country of South Vietnam to document the operations of Army Engineers. He returned to Vietnam in 1998 and 2005 to revisit and photograph some of the places he’d photographed in 1969.

“The poetry in this book is a result of his emotional reunion with one of the most beautiful countries in the world and his coming to grips with the war no one wanted,” Williamson writes. No one? Someone must have wanted it.

The book begins with a four-page essay, “Why Poetry?”  In it Williamson writes: “I never thought of myself as a poet.” He credits a group, the Poet Warriors, with inspiring him to write poetry. He says he believes “there is a cleansing of the soul when one writes poetry.” Sometimes that happens when reading poetry.

There’s a baker’s dozen of short poems in this book. They cover a variety of subjects including the tunnels at Cu Chi, an orphanage, Highway 19, Hanoi, boots, Agent Orange, and napalm. One poem bravely offers up the idea that perhaps it was not a good idea to drop an A-bomb on Haiphong Harbor to put an early end to the war.

Williamson also includes short, cogent prose pieces that set the stage for the poetry and the photographs.

Soon another book by Williamson will be available: Saying Goodbye to Vietnam. This one will be comprised of 275 photographs taken in Vietnam in 1969, along with letters Williamson wrote home to his wife.  Because of the quality of Williamson’s photographs and his clear prose style, I look forward to that book.

The author’s website is http://kenwilliamson.biz

—David Willson