Craig Barber was a young soldier of 19 when he was sent with the Marines to Vietnam in 1967-68. There, at the period of peak violence of America’s war, he endured the horrors of combat in a strange country as far from his birthplace in rural upstate New York as it is possible to imagine. He survived where friends of his didn’t in the randomness of warfare. Some years after the war he picked up a camera, began making pictures, and ultimately developed his signature style of pinhole panoramics printed on platinum paper.
In the mid-1990s, Barber embarked on a series of three long visits to the re-unified, now peaceful country, revisiting areas he patrolled and fought in, across the Mekong Delta, further north by Hue, Hoi An, Da Nang, Phu Bai, and Chu Lai, as well as the borderlands near Laos and by Hanoi. This time, however, instead of carrying a machine gun he carried his handmade cameras and tripod. The results of his trips are astounding and possess a hallucinatory beauty, like no other photographs of Vietnam.
In her accompanying essay, Alison Nordstrom, Curator of Photography at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, describes the effects rendered by Barber’s technique as both a means of expressing the uncontrollable and of reproducing the uncertainties of representing memory. Because of the several minutes it takes to produce an image using a pinhole camera, movement is effectively seen as a blur, not unlike that of a soldier or civilian slipping past seen out of the corner of an eye. “Their softly darkened corners and rudimentary out-of-focus forms lend these photographs a sense of the archaic and the mysterious. The long exposure time blurs any elements of the image that move, turning branches into feathery gestures and people into wraith-like traces in an eternal landscape.” These minutes-long moments reflect the eternity before a firefight, when upon entering a village or crossing a bridge something just moves in an otherwise seemingly abandoned landscape.
The blur in the images, here seen in diptychs or triptychs as when the soldier Barber was looking to left and right – for a movement, a muzzle flash – now takes on a new meaning in the civilian Barber’s eyes. A dog passes along a path in plate seven between a rice paddy and a house, its motion lost to time. The scenes of villagers, barely seen in plates two and four, questioning the photographer’s purpose while he may be wondering if any of them had shot at him years before, completely capture the haunting power of wartime memory and trauma.
This work is completely unlike documentary imagery by the likes of Alfredo Jaar, Simon Norfolk or David Farrell whose “innocent” landscapes depict scenes where acts of war and violence took place in the recent past. Barber’s landscapes document his memories, the sights and sounds and smells of which have haunted him for almost 40 years. His images are intensely personal and in no way “objective”, yet his “subjective” camera depicts only what is in front of it, no more, no less.
Craig Barber can never forget the pain of his experience in Vietnam, and still cries for all that was lost, yet “coming here was not only the right thing, it was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done. Before it was about death and dying, kill or be killed. It was totally crazy. Now it is about learning, caring and forgiving. Now it is about seeing.” Barber’s voyages to Vietnam were a form of catharsis through confrontation with the past and an acknowledgment of Vietnam’s new present: “It is time to put our ghosts to rest.”