photo by charles zoeller
first things first: i am a life-long pacifist, against any and all military anything, and any kind of weapon for any purpose. i have a profound aversion toward all weapon manufacturers.
that said, when A.P. wanted to print a show of their images of the vietnam war, i wanted to print it because nothing in these images glorifies the act of war. these images tell stories from the point of view of many (some anonymous) photographers. i had been hoping to print them since august, i went on vacation, and the first project i worked on when i came back was actually an-my lê's images of the vietnam war re-enactment that seem so real, at least to me. i'm not sure if it's coincidence or irony. her images were shot in the outer-banks, in north carolina.
in french high school i didn't really study that time in indochina, it was a pretty small part of my textbooks. the war in algeria was covered a lot more. in any case, i'm printing now a number of classic A.P. images from the war in vietnam, with a full descriptive paragraph with each negative, you have no idea how careful i am with them! they are mostly 35 mm, but also 2 1/4 and 4x5. the equipment was so simple then: leica (or similar), rollei and graflex. each with their own purpose. the negatives i've had in my hands are all in really good shape, even if a few of them got the frame notched a bit too close to the sprockets, very close to tearing. and amazingly well exposed and processed. the strange thing is, i feel like i'm printing movie stills, movies about the war. i say that with a long delay between the actual events and today. so of course, i look for a soundtrack to fit what i happen to be printing, anywhere from jimi hendrix to bob dylan, the doors and the stones.
i just want to do the images justice, so i place myself back in time, perhaps even in the A.P. darkroom making 8x10 rc prints most likely (rc surface was brand new then). these images are so well-known, it's hard to look at them as if for the first time. but through printing, i see details i had never seen before. for example, as i was making a 40x60 in. print of soldiers carrying a wounded man -larry burrows is with them- fending themselves from the wind of the helicopter, i notice they are standing in a pineapple patch. i had never seen all these pineapples.
as i was printing the series of images that malcolm browne took of the buddhist monk burning himself in protest, my friend nicky vreeland came in to say hello. he is a tibetan monk, well, abbott now. another coincidence that opened the conversation between us. and that is what these images do: they make us express our opinions, learn history, and hopefully how not to repeat it. of course, i cannot look away from the subject, i have to study the negs, do some tests, and the face of that monk burning is forever etched in my brain. i try and go through the motions of moving the greyscale around, but it's useless, the images are too overpowering, i have to pay attention to the subject to make a decent print.
in my research i was looking for the book 'requiem' to get yet another version of certain images, and, coincidence, as i walk into the strand bookstore, there it is, right outside the door, on the $5 bins on wheels. i grabbed it. photographs can be reproduced in so many different ways it can get confusing. but in the end, for the purpose of this project, it has been charles zoeller from A.P. who gave me the feedback needed. he's also been the one who brought me the negs a few at a time, out of the A.P. safe. and the negs go into the safe at the lab -except when they just have to be placed between my light and lens. a short period of time really.
before i start the printing process, i read the caption, i look at the book -the new one from A.P.- and then i decide what it should look like. at first i was trying to make the images look too finished and perfect. after a few tries i was finally able to let go and let the mood of each neg dictate the final image. once i concentrated on the mood, i wasn't too worried about each and every detail, just the important ones. my prints started to feel right, and when steve kasher and chuck zoeller got to see my first batch, we all agreed which worked and which didn't. one quick look and my 'perfect' prints jumped out of the series like sore thumbs. it might seem easy to go with the flow, but as a printer it is quite unnatural to let go the control of the light. but these are raw documentary war pictures, there is nothing to change, just to convey the moments, one moment after another. one very difficult moment to look at after another. in the dark i keep telling myself 'well, that's what war is and does', then i understand better the need to show images such as these. nobody should want to see any more war pictures. and yet, decades later, more wars, more people suffering from them, with no end in sight, all over the world.
i'm still hopeful mostly, the days i take in between to work on prints with different subjects. i printed edition prints -toned- for vik muñiz thread series. a 30x40 show (9 to be exact) for allen frame. doing some toning tests for elliott landy's the band in woodstock. even landscapes on glass plates for lisa elmaleh, and some sex pistols pictures -the one on the plane- for bob gruen. also a print for the mirror series for carrie mae weems (congratulations on the genius award!). one more, a new series of images from gordon park's archive. selenium. oh, and a negative and a test print -or two- for kenro izu, just a first approach really. i almost forgot elvis for al wertheimer and nudes for ariane lopez-huici, as well as a great 1976 pool shot by arthur elgort on 30x40 paper.
and all the images mentioned above are worth much more than a thousand words.
i am finishing to print now the series of eddie adams' pictures of the execution in a street of saigon, and it looks like war, it feels like war. it is war. very difficult to understand. at least for me.