Faces of war

At CEPA Gallery, portraits of soldiers go beyond uniforms

News Critic

In centuries past, when war was still ringed in glory, soldiers - or the leaders of soldiers, at least - were shown in artists' depictions as gallant heroes or regal gentlemen whose still swords were instruments of death both just and righteous.

That was before the compound horrors of the 20th century's wars and before the weapons of modern technology capable of raining down death and destruction indiscriminately. After such dreadful developments, the idea that war is, at its core, simply a battle of honorable individuals fighting for a cause was hard to hold onto.

In this situation, artists cannot easily show soldiers as heroes. They might show them as plain men who "wash their hands, in blood, as best they can," as poet Randall Jarrell phrased it in his World War II poem, "Eighth Air Force." Or they might attempt a harder thing: to show the person beneath the uniform.

This last approach is taken up by New York City photographer Suzanne Opton in a remarkable series of color and black-and-white photographs on view at CEPA Gallery and on banners on display throughout the city. In these portraits of combatants recently returned from a tour of duty in either Iraq or Afghanistan, Opton strips away all soldierly self-regard in order to better perceive them in human terms.

In the black-and-white portraits, Opton can sometimes be marginally anecdotal. In "Benson, 368 Days in Iraq" (each portrait is designated by a given name and length of tour of duty), for instance, an older soldier looks soberly out at the camera while receiving a kiss from a woman who appears in the tight space between the man's face and the edge of the print. The woman's hands encircle the man's head in an expression of love and welcome, a gesture that will be the leitmotif in this series. It is a formal device that unites the group and effectively establishes the emotional tone of the works.

The black-and-whites are big Polaroids. Opton reveals the Polaroid process to give some sense of immediacy in what are basically studio shots. At the edges is the smear of chemicals that remain when the print is separated from the film.

It is in the big color portraits that Opton's use of formal devices comes to powerful fruition, however. These are poignant pieces that sound a universal note even as they movingly capture the features of an individual. The single unifying scheme again has the camera focusing on the head, but now instead of taking a standard, upright portrait pose, each soldier assumes a prone position with his or her head set flat against a tarp. The unusual pose has many implications. Is this a coerced position? An image of exhaustion? Of dread? Of torture?

And what accounts for the varied facial expressions? "Bruno, 355 Days In Iraq" is alert, his attention riveted by something beyond the viewer. "Pry, 210 Days in Iraq" is asleep or unconscious. "Crum, 303 Days In Afghanistan" looks anxious. "Morris, 100 Days in Iraq" is depicted with her features forcefully compressed by the floor, the clear oval of her head looking like a discomforting version of one of the sculptor Brancusi's "Sleeping Muses."

Whatever the expression, an overriding sense of vulnerability pervades each portrait. The subject is set almost helplessly before our examining eye. Nudged on by Opton's imposing composition and clarity of vision, we move in for closer scrutiny. What we see is a soldier stripped of mediating context, the raw individual beyond the uniform.