WINCHESTER — Seven small shows tackle one very large subject at the Griffin Museum of Photography. Grouped under the heading “Tours of Duty,” they consider war and its aftermath — a subject as ancient as Homer and as topical as Veterans Day.
“Tours of Duty” runs through Dec. 6.
The most conventional show is D. Clarke Evans’s “They Are Gone: Portraits and Stories of World War II Veterans.” It consists of 16 color photographs of men and women who served in that conflict. Handsome and inviting, the photographs are explicitly meant as tributes to their subjects. A brief biographical text accompanies each image.
Himself a Marine veteran, Evans very much admires his sitters but understands how complicated context can get. The text for Yoshio Nakamura, who saw combat in Italy as an Army staff sergeant, notes that before enlisting he was in one of the internment camps where US citizens and legal residents of Japanese ancestry were interned. Instead of the legalistically euphemistic “interned” or “relocated,” Evans uses “forced.” Apparently, ex-Marines are as given to bluntness as those still serving are, and a good thing, too.
Suzanne Opton’s “Many Wars” also consists of color portraits of veterans. There are 11. Two of the men served in World War II, the rest in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Opton gave each subject a large piece of fabric to wear during the photo session. The sitter could use it as he wished: as cloak, blanket, visual prop. The cloth becomes a kind of uniform or costume. It alternately enlarges, distances, reveals, conceals, and protects. “You salute the uniform, not the person wearing it,” service personnel are taught. Here the reverse principle obtains.
Portraits of a very different sort figure in William Betcher’s “War Games.” Betcher takes vintage toy soldiers, damaged or worn — thus wounded or maimed in appearance — and photographs them close up. The images come in two types: four large-size aluminum prints, 36 inches by 24 inches; and 19 tintypes, set in 19th-century brass cases. The images are grotesque, jarring, and incongruous. Since war is their theme, that’s only fitting.
Todd Bradley’s “War Stories I Never Heard” consists of two parts, one of which also involves toy figures. The toys are employed in dioramas Bradley constructs to evoke his grandfather’s service in World War II. The images recall the photographs of David Levinthal and the assemblages of Mark Hogancamp, in the documentary “Marwencol.” The other group comprises collages using photographs and mementos Bradley discovered after his grandfather’s death.
World War II is also the subject of David Pace and Stephen Wirtz’s “WIREPHOTO.” Unlike Bradley’s work, the point of the images is impersonality. Pace and Wirtz take prints of radio-transmitted wartime images — wire photos — then crop, scan, and enlarge them to 16 inches by 20 inches. The result is a visual distancing or even unreality. A photograph of an explosion off of Malta looks almost painterly. Nothing is quite as seen — or remembered. The fog of war meets the haze of memory.
Binh Danh’s series “Military Foliage” and “One Week’s Dead” offer the most unusual work in “Tours of Duty.” Danh prints his images on leaves. This creates a strange straddle between art and nature. Both series extend the strangeness and straddling further. In “Military Foliage” Danh superimposes camouflage patterns (which are derived from foliage) onto plant shapes. “One Week’s Dead” takes portraits of US service personnel killed in Vietnam over a seven-day period in 1969 and prints them on leaves and grasses. The images are at once mannered and ungainly. It’s as if the faces of the dead are looking out from behind the plants, playing a dire game of peek-a-boo.
Can civilians have tours of duty? The inclusion of Allison Stewart’s “Bug Out Bag: The Commodification of American Fear” would suggest so. A bug out bag is a backpack or duffel packed with items that one might need during a disaster. Stewart takes the contents of actual bug out bags, spreads them out, and photographs them. Part collage, part assemblage, the images look like layouts for a survivalist gift catalog. In fact, it’s brand names and labels that stand out visually. Packaging "is the last avant-garde,” Don DeLillo writes in his novel “White Noise.” Maybe it’s the last thing you see, too.
TOURS OF DUTY
At Griffin Museum of Photography, 67 Shore Road, Winchester, through Dec. 6. 781-729-1158, griffinmuseum.org
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.