Gallery review by Matthew Kuemmerlein
Umbrage Gallery presents a panorama of the Vietnam War from 1965 to the Tet Offensive around 1968 as captured by combat photographer Eddie Adams. Adams is best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of the execution of an alleged Vietcong officer on a nice day in Saigon. The image had immense consequences for the war in Vietnam, and is the signature image of Adams’ celebrated career as a photojournalist, which spanned 45 years, 13 wars, and hundreds of awards. Five years after Adams’ death, the release of the first book of his photos occasions Umbrage Gallery’s exhibition.
The photos on display call to mind the contrast between shooting firearms and photos on the battlefield, converging in Adams’ famous war photo, in which a man, though killed by a bullet, is yet preserved on film. Eddie Adams served in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, and his photos are taken in action, while dodging sniper fire, aboard evacuating helicopters, etc. A portrait of him shows a man in fatigues with steel gray cameras hanging off him like military equipment.
Shooting war photos in black and white implies a stark record of truth; however, even Adams has admitted that photos are half-truths. Perhaps this is best reflected in the dull ash color, which guides the photos between the white flares and black shadows. The staying effect of Adams’ work is a dogged, impartial sympathy with the suffering of both sides and those caught between.
The circumstances of the photos are explained in captions, but in the case of Adams’ Pulitzer-winning image, a set of smaller adjacent photos framed together reveals what happened before and after. These show a very casual execution with many witnesses, including a child in the background of the final photo. Adding to the tragedy is Adams’ account that he himself did not expect the prisoner to be shot so abruptly.
The people involved in the war — the exhausted Marines, terrified civilians, prisoners of war, crouching in the tall grass — seem alarmingly natural in the context of the scorched and tortured landscape. Most memorable to me are a frail Marine on whose face the light has fallen to suggest the grim augur of a skull; and another Marine assisting with a Good Friday service, gripping a crucifix like Golgotha, his eyes hidden behind the crossbeam. A wounded marine with blood running the channels of his face like tears, his eye clenched shut into a scar which cannot heal; a photo, taken from the interior of an evacuation helicopter, of a Vietnamese woman, her few belongings in a small basket. She is next to her wounded husband who stretches his arms in a feeble plea for rescue. The caption accompanying this last photo is heartbreaking.
Eddie Adams’ photographs document well the pain that is every war’s most certain legacy, and go beyond journalism to become powerfully disturbing works of art.
Eddie Adams: Vietnam at Umbrage Gallery, 11 Front St, Suite 208, Dumbo, through April 30