From the Civil War to the War in Iraq–Thrasher-Horne’s American Soldier Exhibit Pays Tribute to Our Troops
At the outbreak of the American Civil War photography was still in its infancy. The medium was experimental, and the collodion (wet-plate) process of the time was long and tedious. But in 1861 a photographer by the name of Mathew Brady secured permission from Lincoln to follow the troops in what was expected to be a short insurrection. What followed was much more, and Brady was there (along with twenty-three associates) to document the conflict. The resulting photographs shaped popular understanding of the Civil War and created the first extended photographic coverage of war in history.
The major exhibit opening at the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts (THCA) this November, The American Soldier, A Photographic Tribute from the Civil War to the War in Iraq, gives us a chance to remember the experiences and hardships of those soldiers as well as all of our troops during the past hundred-plus years. While primarily focused on paying tribute to servicemen and women, the exhibit’s collection of one-hundred and sixteen photographs also examines the interrelationship between war and photography, revealing the evolution of the medium by which war is chronicled and remembered. From the long exposures of the Civil War’s early wet-plate photography (which made action shots virtually impossible) to the quick snapshots of today’s digital cameras, these photographs are an integral part of our collective memory and a powerful tool in understanding America’s history.
Take, for example, the Civil War photograph depicting a soldier’s family with the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry. In it, a soldier stands next to his wife, his children seated beside him along with their dog. In the background, other soldiers stand or sit. As evidenced by this photograph, during the Civil War it was not unheard of for women to travel with their husbands, assisting with first aid or acting as the infantry’s laundress. Princess Agnes Salm-Salm, whose husband Prince Felix of Prussia served with the Union Army, noted that the Army of the Potomac’s winter camp was “teeming with women.”
In another photo, this one taken in 1944 during World War II, a young man is seen lying on a pile of supplies. A cigarette hangs from his lips, a blanket is wrapped tightly around his shoulders. The photo, from New York Times Magazine, was the inspiration for The American Soldier; curator Cyma Rubin saw it while perusing the magazine and was immediately struck by the image:
Frank Johnson was a twenty-year-old corporal in Company L, 399th Infantry, 100th Division, when the photo was taken. The Battle of the Bulge was a month away. “We were in the Vosges Mountains moving forward and we got up into a place where we were pinned down by German fire,” he recalls. “The company commander, Captain Downey, sent me back for some more ammunition and bedrolls; we were going to be pinned down a while, so we might as well sleep.”
The Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts will be presenting The American Soldier as part of their 2014 season’s Salute to the Arts – a three month long cultural arts tribute to our military men and women and their families. Tony Walsh, THCA’s outgoing executive director, describes the exhibit as an “homage to the American soldier and military personnel of the United States as it documents the last nine wars and conflicts that our country has been involved in.”
In addition to the historic photography exhibit, Salute to the Arts will also include performances by both the Jazz Ambassadors of the U.S. Army Band and the Navy Band of the Southeast, a performance of the award winning play Letters Home, and a performance by Bobby Horton of his Songs and Stories of the Civil War. As part of its multi-year nationwide tour, The American Soldier exhibit will remain on view at THCA through February 16th of next year. The exhibit is in its 8th year touring American museums, galleries, and libraries, and has now been viewed by over one-million people.
Words from the curator
I recently had the opportunity to correspond with The American Soldier, A Photographic Tribute from the Civil War to the War in Iraq curator Cyma Rubin about the exhibit, her inspiration for branching out into visual art, and the public’s response to these powerful images of our service men and women. Rubin is a Tony and Emmy Award-winning producer, director, curator, and writer based in New York.
Arbus Magazine/Corey-Disch: What led you from your focus as a producer into the role of curator?
Rubin: Curating is producing by researching and exploring a given subject and then selecting from the findings the material which tells the story based on a concept. Producing theatre and film have the same basic elements; working from a script where the proposed scenes have been assembled, shooting and then editing (selecting) the best scenes to create and showing a finished product…same as an exhibition.
Arbus/Corey-Disch: The exhibit has now been viewed by over one-million people. Why do you think the response has been so strong?
Rubin: Americans are interested in American history and in particular our military. It is the first exhibition to pay tribute to the Army and Marines and to show their role in nine wars – from The Civil War to the War in Afghanistan. Americans care about the young men and women who have fought and risked their lives for those who remained at home. Because the photographs are so large, visitors can experience the moments captured by the photographers, who are there for us.
Arbus/Corey-Disch: Can you go into a bit about the curating process and how you selected the works for American Soldier?
Rubin: The research took almost four years. I collected over four-thousand photographs from many sources. I finally narrowed it down to one-hundred and sixteen pictures which I felt told the story of the American Soldier. The American Soldier exhibit is a powerful visual narrative of our troops over a period of more than one-hundred years, a remembrance of the men and women who have sacrificed for our country and of the photographers who chronicled their experiences.
The American Soldier, A Photographic Tribute from the Civil War to the War in Iraq runs from Nov. 14, to February 16, 2015. THCA is located at St. Johns River State College, 283 College Dr., Orange Park.
Article written by Adelaide Corey-Disch