American wars, images from the ground

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September 24th, 2012

Omaha, NE – A new exhibit at the Durham Museum explores the humanity and everyday lives of American soldiers.

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“It’s about the humanity of the soldiers, about the humor, the camaraderie,” explained Cyma Rubin, curator of The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute, as she walked through the halls of photographs installed at the Durham, many of them blown up to poster-size.

A curator and documentarian, Rubin began her career in the arts, directing award-winning Broadway productions and films, and her eye for artistry and human emotion is powerfully on display in this exhibit.

A Vietnamese villager clutches her hat and an American soldier leans a weary head on his hand as they sit together after a battle with the Viet Cong, 290 miles from Saigon, Feb. 5, 1966. (Photo credit Rick Merron/The Associated Press)

“This is not about blood and guts,” Rubin said. “It’s about soldiering… and to be able at some point to step into the photograph emotionally and intellectually so that you can experience what the photograph is showing.”

For four years, Rubin sifted through over 4,000 images of American soldiers spanning generations from the Civil War to Iraq. In 2007, when the exhibit first opened in Louisiana, she’d whittled it down to 116 of the most poignant images.

One shows an American family during the Civil War with two children standing next to their father in uniform. Rubin told the story of one young viewer in South Carolina who kept returning to the image. “He was staring again at the photograph,” she said. “So I asked him, ‘Is there something else I can help you with?’ And he said, ‘Well I know now how that little boy felt when his daddy went to war because my daddy’s in Iraq.’”

“He had now an experience which said to him he’s not alone,” she said, “that this happened a long time ago.”

Walking through the exhibit, Rubin had similar stories for many of the images, which each held intimate moments of human emotion – some repeated across generations, some lighthearted, others raw.

A gun crew from Regimental Headquarters Company, 23rd Infantry, fires a 37mm gun during an advance against entrenched Germans in the Argonne Forest in France, 1918. (Photo credit Signal Corps)

Pointing to a black-and-white photograph of one soldier holding another, his face contorted in pain, in Korea, Rubin said “This is the aftermath of what would have been blood and guts.”

“His buddy was killed,” she said. “And this is another buddy holding on to him, supporting him as he weeps.”

“That’s important,” she said. “Not to see the kill, but to see what happened afterwards to the soldiers involved. The camaraderie was very powerful.”

The American Soldier: A Photographic Tribute is on display at the Durham Museum through January. For more information, and to see more photographs from the exhibit, click here.

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