GRUNTS: The GI Experience
Here are two reviews for the exhibition I curated at The Panopticon Gallery in Boston. Both are very positive toward the exhibition.
Seeing GIs fight the good fight
“Grunts” depicts both sides of military life
© The Boston Globe, December 13,2011
Philip Larkin may never have worn a uniform or seen combat (other than the domestic sort). But he offered what must be the pithiest, most accurate description that’s yet been written of military service. “Life is first boredom, then fear,” says the narrator of Larkin’s poem “Dockery and sons.” The relevance of fear to being a soldier or sailor, airman or Marine is obvious. The relevance of boredom is less so – until you recall that most expressive of military commands, “Hurry up and wait.” The things that happen in war are terrible. The things that don’t happen can be terrible in a different way.
Both the fear and the boredom of life in uniform are on display in “Grunts: The GI Experience,” which runs at Panopticon Gallery through Jan. 10. Is the show’s title a hint of things to come? “Grunts” didn’t come into common use as a term for foot soldiers until the Vietnam War. Yet all the photographs here are from the Korean War era and World War II. Might there be a subsequent show on the Indochina conflict? If it is as good as this one, it will be worth waiting for.
Slightly less than half of the photographs are from the Korean War era, 22 of them all taken by Harold Feinstein. The World War II images consist of 22 by the Acme Photo press agency; three by Robert Capa; three taken by unidentified US military photographers; one by Wayne Miller, who served as a lieutenant with Edward Steichen’s Naval Aviation Photography unit: and two family snapshots from the collection of Panopticon owner Jason Landry. The inclusion of that final pair is indicative of the sense of the personal, even tender, found again and again in these pictures.
What makes so many of Feinstein’s photographs so interesting to look at is how vividly they capture the tedium his sitters were experiencing. Titles are self explanatory: “Cigarette Break,” “View From the Porthole,” “Reading Blondie Comics,” “Four GIs Asleep on a Bench,” “Sleeping in Mud.” How could Feinstein not have had such an appreciation for the oppressive emptiness of so much of military life? He was himself a soldier, though not an official photographer, at the time of these pictures.
The contrast with the Acme and Capa photos, most of which were taken either during combat or in its vicinity, could hardly be greater – and that extends to the titles. Some are jokey (“To the Victors Belong the Goils,” a shot taken in liberated France). Some are jingoistic (“Get the Carriers… and They Got Them!). Even when in the middle of the action, the pictures still stand somehow outside the GI experience. They’re more for the folks back home than they are about the fighting men in the frame. With Feinstein, the situation is the exact opposite.
The basic dynamic is true even in Capa’s pictures – Capa who famously said, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” It took bravery to be in a position to take a beautifully composed an image as Capa’s “Fighting French on the March, Sicily” (another eye-roller of a title). But it was an artist who took it, not a soldier.
Maybe it’s Miller’s joint status as officer and photographer that makes his photograph of a sailor on lookout duty carry such emotional weight. The camera’s so close to the young man – he’s a boy, really _ as he looks through those binoculars. Yet not so close: The look on his face suggests he could be a million miles away.
Grunt’s-eye view of war
Exhibit captures unfiltered images of life on the battlefield
© MetroWest Daily News, December 22,2011
In 1950, an ambitious, 19-year-old photographer from Coney Island, N.Y., Harold Feinstein, was drafted into the U.S. Army after war broke out in Korea. Following basic training, he was shipped to South Korea where he spent the next seven months snapping photos of fellow recruits dozing in their bunks, reading comics and waiting in line in the drizzling rain. Feinstein’s 21 black-and-white prints convey the mid-century innocence of the Boy Next Door sent to fight in a foreign land.
“We were all innocent kids,” says Feinstein, who now lives in Merrimac. “I had my 35 mm Leica with me all the time. Taking pictures has been my whole life. “More than six decades later, Feinstein’s sharp-eyed images of the tedium and camaraderie of military life are showcased in “Grunts: The GI Experience,” an exhibition that reveals the ordinary men inside the uniforms, at Panopticon Gallery in Boston. His grunts are fresh-faced teenagers, probably away from home for the first time, hanging out with buddies in the barracks, doing pretty much what they’d have been doing back in Any Town, U.S.A. Drafted just two years after President Truman integrated the military, he photographed white and black soldiers sharing the democracy of identical uniforms, bad haircuts and bland chow.
Organized by Jim Fitts, this involving show ambushes familiar stereotypes about the military and shoots down misconceptions about the men serving in it. An educator and curator, Fitts has complemented Feinstein’s Korean War photos with 32 photos, including three by Robert Capa, of World War II combat, front-line soldiers and portraits. Taken mostly by unnamed photographers of the Acme Photo Service and Army Signal Corps, the World War II photos document in gritty, black-and-white images combat’s impact on American soldiers, civilians and, in a few cases, the enemy.
Coming on the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, this thoughtful approach reminds viewers these freshfaced and hard-bitten grunts were our grandfathers, dads and uncles and the solitary man, wearing badges in his cap, in the coffee shop. Panopticon owner Jason Landry says the photos in “Grunts” capture without pretense or contrived artfulness the intimate moments of ordinary men behind the lines or between battles. He included photos of his grandfather Joseph Landry and father-in-law Ralph Devito in their World War II and Korean War uniforms to emphasize the ubiquitous service of citizensoldiers in modern wars. All photos, except of Landry’s relatives, are for sale.
Located in the second floor of Hotel Commonwealth in Kenmore Square, the exhibit in Panopticon Gallery runs through Jan. 10. Fitts says he was “blown away” on first viewing Feinstein’s photos which had only been “exhibited sporadically” in the area in recent decades. He notes Feinstein belonged to the prestigious Photo League as a teenager in New York and was an experienced “street photographer” who had collaborated with W. Eugene Smith and discussed his work with pioneering photographer Edward Steichem and even sold him some pictures. “Harold was aware that photography was an art and he had the eye of an artist,” says Fitts. Despite Feinstein’s experience, the Army did not assign him to be a military photographer probably because The Photo League was considered a left-leaning organization at the time Sen. Joseph McCarthy was claiming communists had infiltrated the Army. Assigned to be a graphic artist, Feinstein had the freedom to take “unfiltered” photos of Army life that “officially sanctioned” photographers didn’t dare shoot, says Fitts.
Feinstein shot “unpretentious photos that revealed innocence, an absence of bravado and the closeness” of young men away from home, he says. “One reason Harold’s photos were so important was they were among the first images of the newly integrated Armed Forces. Blacks and whites lived and served together without differentiation. When the GIs he photographed went home, they were the ones who kick-started the Civil Rights movement.” Don’t look for Hollywood heroes in Feinstein’s photos. Rather than charging up Pork Chop Hill, GIs in his photos kill time in their bunks, board troop ships en masse or grab a goodbye kiss from a girlfriend in a stylish hat.
In “Mail Call,” a mixed race group of soldiers waits anxiously for word from home, enviously eyeing a kid who’s already got a letter. Sitting on his bunk, a black soldier peruses a “Blondie” comic book. In “GIs Lounging,” four soldiers cat nap on a bench, resting their heads on one another’s shoulders. Can you imagine John Wayne snuggling up to Forest Tucker in “Sands of Iwo Jima?” The more than 30 World War II photos by Capra and unknown wire service and military photographers chronicle the grimmer – and more familiar – realities of men at war. The baby faces of Feinstein’s grunts are now covered with scruffy whiskers. The cozy barracks have been replaced by devastated European and sodden Pacific landscapes.
Instead of lazing about with a comic, they push howitzers through bombed-out cities, squat behind machine guns and, when lucky, smooch with willing French damsels. Considering they were taken mainly by “sanctioned” photographers in a war yet to be won, many cast the “dog faces” – as they were then known – as the very good guys, rescuing children, pets and democracy. In one revealing pairing, a photo of a captured Nazi U-Boat captain with perfect Teutonic features is juxtaposed with a photo of a dirty but smiling GI giving a Japanese kid a piggy back ride. Like other soldiers, Feinstein eventually shipped home. He documented several decades of life on Coney Island, taught photography at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester and pioneered the use of kaleidoscopic lens for a Life magazine article on New York City architecture.
Background on the Exhibition:
Curating the GI experience in Korea and WWII
I am curating an exhibition of images that portray the American GI experience in the Korean conflict and WWII.
The exhibition features a selection of Harold Feinstein’s Korea images as well as images by both famous and anonymous WWII photographers. Here is a write-up on the exhibition taken from the Panopticon Gallery blog.
GRUNTS: The GI Experience
curated by Jim Fitts
December 7 – January 10, 2012
Grunts is military vernacular for United States Army or Marine foot soldiers, the mass of devoted men and women who make up the bulk of the armed services. Commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing at Pearl Harbor, Panopticon Gallery presents Grunts: The G.I. Experience curated by Jim Fitts.
Fitts met a number of grunts while living in Hawaii in the early 90′s, which piqued his interest in the subject. A boxing fan, he regularly attended matches at the Scofield Barracks at Fort Shafter where he befriended several Marines. It was then that he realized his impression of what their lives were like was rather different from reality.
“Over the years, I have rarely seen what I would consider an unfiltered, real life photographic portrayal of military personnel ”…scenes of everyday life, says Fitts. “This exhibition will come as close to the reality of the grunt experience as I have ever seen.”
Harold Feinstein’s friendship with the New York Photo League founder, Sid Grossman, resulted in him not being ranked as an official armed serviced photographer. Therefore, he documented from the viewpoint of a fellow G.I. serving in Korea. Photographs show draftees being inducted, and soldiers on troopships, reading, sleeping and marching. The body of work also contains images of the historical integration of the armed services.
A selection of vintage photographs by Robert Capa and numerous press photographs from WWII compliment Feinstein’s work. The pictures are memoirs of the common American soldier during WWII. The majority of the images focus on the events between battles, though some illustrate combat.
Images in Grunts are not the repeatedly reproduced military propaganda. They are “personal and very human,” says Fitts, who hopes viewers will gain a better understanding and appreciation of the courageous soldiers.