Portrait photographer Suzanne Opton has approached many subject matters from unusual angles. In her images, CEOs leap onto tables, female bodies wrap around household objects and brothers stand proudly in a twisted landscape. Her newest series Soldier reflect a curiosity about the military at a time of war. As she describes, “It is not sensationalism I am after. I am after the human being.” She has had the opportunity to photograph around seventy soldiers who recently returned from their tour of duty in Iraq. The series includes two parts. The first is a group of formal black-and-white portraits. The second part is a group of closely cropped photographs showing only the soldiers’ heads laying on a flat surface.
Since arriving at Light Work Suzanne has scanned many 4×5″ negatives from the series and is currently experimenting with large format printing of the head images. She also hopes to continue photographing soldiers for a third part of the series.
Suzanne Opton’s work has been exhibited worldwide and has appeared in publications such as Fortune, Forbes, Newsweek and The New York Times Magazine. She is the recipient of grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Vermont Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Her series of nudes, Loose Change, is the subject of a chapter in Vicki Goldberg’s newest book, Light Matters (Aperture, 2005). Suzanne lives and works in New York City.
To fully appreciate Soldier, the series of photographic portraits made in 2004 and 2005 by New York artist Suzanne Opton, a sculpture made in 1910 and owned by the legendary photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz may provide a valuable point of reference. The Sleeping Muse is a bronze sculpture by the Romanian artist Constantin Brancusi, who pioneered the communication of universal conditions or feelings by the reduction of forms to what he described as the “essence of things.” The sculpture is a shiny bronze ovoid, a human-scale head form with minimal suggestions of facial features. It lays supine on a horizontal surface reflecting the gaze of viewers. A muse provides inspiration to an artist, but what insights might The Sleeping Muse have provided Opton?
Francisco Goya, a nineteenth century Spanish artist, warned in his suite of etchings The Disasters of War that “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters.” Unlike Goya’s etchings, Opton’s series is not of the disasters or monsters of war, but focuses on the survivors. Like Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse, each of Opton’s soldiers is presented solely as a head on a horizontal surface. Shaved high and tight, in military parlance, they lie there with an eggshell-like fragility. Are they themselves spent shells? Are they fallen or defeated? Are they at rest, at peace, dreaming wide-eyed? Or are they being subdued, examined, or interrogated? They are like pebbles on a beach—blown, tossed, tumbled, and polished smooth by the violent, random movements of larger forces and circumstances. Like the tips of icebergs, they seem at first cold and distant, yet below the surface they are larger and much nearer to us.
In these photographs, Opton poses both a specific and a universal question: where in the depths do subject and viewer meet? In confronting any portrait a viewer ostensibly looks in order to “find” the other person. In actuality, though, what they most quickly identify with is a part of themselves. Opton has helped us to realize that we are where they are, we are who they are.
Soldiers are taught to objectify the enemy—in order to lessen the other’s humanity. This makes them both easier to fight and harder to think about. However, when Opton objectifies the other—her soldiers—she does so to point out the minute particularities of each subject, thus heightening their humanity. Because these heads each fill the picture frame, they draw us close, draw us into their intimate space—the space that would be shared only by the most important people in their lives—their lovers or their fellow soldiers. We are down with them. We are on their level.
Opton’s compositions also embody the soldiers’ combat experience and worldview in another way. In these photos there is very little foreground and background. In battle, there is very little focus on the past and the future. There is only the all-important, immediate moment—the now. A wrong action in one moment can foreclose the future and nullify the past. Henri Cartier-Bresson described that every situation in photography has its decisive moment. For soldiers, the decisive moment is always the present moment. Opton places us in that moment with the soldiers. We look them in the eyes and they stare back at us, and sometimes, through us. The photographer has literally followed the legendary military order, “Don’t shoot ’til you see the whites of their eyes.”
Opton has not shown us any uniforms, medals, or weapons. Perhaps she feels that the paraphernalia of warfare serves only to camouflage reality and to distract us from the central issues. Her titles state simply Soldier [Name]: [Number of days in Iraq]. Profession, identity, and time spent in harm’s way—the most universal attributes of soldiering. Those are the only pieces of information she shares with us about the men and women of the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, NY. Like Brancusi, by distilling the myriad of possible details down to the barest essentials, the “essence,” Opton has succeeded in revealing to us, through these particular soldiers, from a particular war, the essential humanity of all soldiers from all wars. Perhaps in the process, she illuminates their humanity united with our own.
Suzanne Opton lives in New York City. She participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program in September 2005. Her Web site can be found at www.suzanneopton.com.
Larry List is an artist, writer, and independent curator living in New York City. His most recent project is The Imagery of Chess Revisited, about chess and Surrealism during World War II. It was organized for The Noguchi Museum in New York and will travel to The Menil Collection in Houston, TX.
The best of art often investigates aspects of life that force us to reconsider how we have been viewing our world. It may stop us in our tracks as we make our way through a gallery and can stay on our minds for a long time thereafter. Yet it is less frequent that this is achieved through portraiture, as it is all too easy to become wrapped up in the identity of the person in front of the camera. Portraiture touches and moves when we can transcend our differences and can connect to a person on a human level. Without this connection the portrait remains exotic and emotionally remote.
Suzanne Opton’s images in her series Soldier and consequent series Citizen are immediately gripping, though she began the series with a straightforward search for answers in the faces of soldiers. Wanting to make sense of a war that could affect her son in the case of a draft, she turned her camera toward soldiers who had recently returned from tours of duty in Iraq or Afghanistan. “In making these portraits of soldiers, I simply wanted to look in the face of someone who’d seen something unforgettable,” she explains.
The photographs transcend the familiar scope of portraiture through their broad range of subtly expressed emotion. While certainly timely and relevant, the images are also very elementary in their approach to general themes of war and soldiers—already in the news everyday due to the ever-climbing death toll. Opton’s photographs make these abstract concepts emotionally accessible one human being at a time. Each portrait forges an intensely intimate connection between the person in the image and the observer, to a degree that is usually reserved for those we are closest to in our lives. The soldiers have made themselves vulnerable by opening up to the camera and therefore to the viewer, but this trust comes at a price for the viewer who can no longer think of war in abstract numbers, and who bears witness to the horrors of warfare observed by these soldiers through the emotional aftermath still echoing in their faces.
When a war takes place in a foreign country, it is easy to view the conflict through cold statistics and newspaper headlines, yet Opton’s images reconnect the war with the people it affects. All ninety soldiers photographed by Opton were part of the 10th Mountain Division based in Fort Drum in Upstate New York. Many have since left the military, while others were sent out for additional tours of duty. For those who know Opton’s portraits it is hard not to scan news of war casualties for familiar names. So when Sergeant Alex R. Jimenez was reported missing while back on tour in Iraq, many held their breath and hoped for the best. That fragile hope, preserved for fourteen months, came to an end only recently when his remains were found and returned to his family for burial. As far as Opton knows, Jimenez is the only one portrayed in the series who has been killed.
It is hard to believe that it has been three and a half years since Opton arrived at Light Work for a portfolio review of her first images in the series Soldier, since we invited her into our Artist-in-Residence program and into our exhibition program not long thereafter. From the beginning the Light Work staff felt this work should be seen by the general public, and with the generous help of the Central New York Community Foundation we were able to expand the scope of the exhibition to include five billboards placed at key locations throughout Syracuse, a superbly informed lecture by author and art historian Vicki Goldberg, and an essay in our publication Contact Sheet by the author. Many others joined to support this important work. The work has since been shown across the country in exhibitions at CEPA Gallery, Peter Hay Halpert Fine Art, Blue Sky Gallery, the Michener Museum, and in Switzerland at the Musée de l’Elysée. The Fledgling Fund supported Opton for the partner project Citizen that portrays displaced Iraqis in Jordan.
As the political parties prepare for their conventions to pick their presidential candidates, multiple groups and artist organizations have joined forces to quietly remind the public of the ones who are fighting our war. Billboards with Opton’s images are scheduled for multiple cities, currently including Denver,
Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Houston.1
It would bode well for humanity if this work were no longer timely, and if we no longer had so much to learn from the faces of these soldiers. But until that time, we bow our heads to the loss of Soldier
Jimenez and the many others who have lost their lives in the line of duty. Opton quietly has drawn attention to the emotional impact of warfare. And this is something that we as a people cannot afford to ignore.
1. For an updated listing visit www.SoldiersFace.com