Ellen Susan Photographs
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In 2007, shortly after moving to Savannah, Georgia, I began making portraits of active-duty members of the United States Army, using the wet plate collodion process – the primary photographic method of the Civil War era.

Savannah is near two major Army installations, and uniformed soldiers are a noticeable, every-day presence here. In 2007, soldiers from the local posts were poised to deploy to Iraq for the third time in 5 years. I was struck by the contrast between the images of soldiers on television and in the print media (anonymous, impersonal) and, for instance, the impossibly fresh-faced kid in line at the grocery store who was probably on his way back to Iraq. I became interested in a jarring disconnect between an idea of war with very limited effect on most Americans beyond something to have an opinion about – and the overwhelming fact of life that it is on a very small percentage of us.

The Soldier Portraits project intends, in part, to personalize and humanize these individuals sent repeatedly into war zones, in a way that is meant to transcend pro-or-con policy debates. The wet plate process is a means to that end. It reveals minute, grainless details. And it is a very slow process, requiring each sitter to remain still and concentrate on the picture-making procedure for up to 60 seconds. The resulting intensity of gaze engages viewers in a manner that is distinct from the casually made, ephemeral images that have become so familiar.

The use of this antique process (popularized during an earlier war) also underscores the contrast between an era when the connection between citizens and soldiers was direct and inescapable, rather than mediated and abstract.

Many of the Soldier Portraits images are mounted in custom-made, hinged, wooden boxes – simplified, contemporary interpretations of the small cased images sent home from 19th century battlefields. Often such images were the last that the soldiers’ families would ever see. This reminder of the potential ultimate fate of any soldier is meant to crystallize each subject’s individuality and humanity.


Project Statement

Soldier Portraits Web Stie

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