Monday, April 16, 2007

Book Review: Ghosts in the Landscape by Craig J. Barber

Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited
Photographs by Craig J. Barber, Umbrage Editions, 2006

Craig J. Barber was a combat marine during the Vietnam War in the 1960s. In creating the series of photographs for this book, Ghosts in the Landscape, he went back to Vietnam three times during the years 1995, 1997, and 1998. For Barber, it was the chance to lay these revenants of war to rest, to deal with the memories of what happened in that place and bring closure to what happened to the people he knew and to those he left behind. Vietnam continues to be touchstone for an entire generation of Americans. Writers, poets, filmmakers, and artists have all tried to process the experience of that war in order to make sense of it all. This is Barber’s attempt to do the same. The photographs function as memorials to his memories of war, but they also function as tributes to the land and people of that country that survived after the war.

Before getting to the book, the first aspect to know about Barber’s photography is that his cameras don’t use lenses exactly; they use pinholes. A pinhole is a very tiny hole that is drilled in a metal sheet which functions as a lens, in that it’s able to focus the light into an image and project it onto film or paper. Because the tiny hole also acts like a very small f-stop, the image it creates has tremendous depth of field. In fact, most pinhole photographs have universal depth of field—everything is in focus. The consequence of this is that exposure times tend to be very long because pinholes don’t let in very much light, sometimes lasting several minutes or longer even in bright daylight. This produces interesting motion effects in the images; objects that don’t hold still are recorded as blurs and streaks of movement. The second thing to know about Barber’s images is that his prints are platinum prints, which accounts for the softer look and brown tones. Platinum prints are especially good at rendering subtle light values, while maintaining rich darker values. To the viewer, platinum prints have a nostalgic look about them, which can complement some subjects. In the case of Ghosts in the Landscape, they work very well.

The images in Ghosts in the Landscape are presented as diptychs and triptychs, that is, each image on a page consists of two or three separate images that function as one long panoramic image. This results in a slightly disjointed feel to the images, almost disorienting, where you see elements that should continue, but don’t—like memories that are missing details out of the middle of the experience. Some elements are duplicated in both images; others are left out. The people found in these haunting photographs take on the aspect of faded memories, as if they are people whose very shapes are beginning to shred and disperse due to the passing of time. Of course, this effect is because of long exposures and the inability of the subjects to hold still, but they also serve as a comment on the nature of memory. The landscapes are melancholy and contemplative, darkened at the corners as if your view has been restricted, allowing you to examine only what Barber wants us to see, which is only what he wants us to remember from his journey. And indeed, memory seems to be overriding theme in this book. Barber is dealing with his memories of the war and reconciling those memories against the reality he encountered when he went back to Vietnam. His images are luminous and beautiful with a keen bittersweet edge to them. They are meant to be slowly and patiently taken in a bit at a time, as much as any painful memory should be handled.

Ghosts in the Landscape can be purchased at:

Hermon Joyner

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