Sometimes simple images capture the most complex information. It's impossible to know, for instance, all that's going on inside the heads of the soldiers pictured by Suzanne Opton.
Tonight at the Henry Art Gallery, Opton will talk about why she took their pictures, and what the process was like for her and the soldiers. For the Soldier series, she framed them simply, isolating their heads, each one lain on its side. There's a double association; they appear to be daydreaming, sort of, but in context they also appear to have been shot down.
Opton had trouble getting access to soldiers; she was turned down by several bases before Fort Drum allowed her to come on and take pictures of the soldiers who'd just returned from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The titles of her portraits include their names and the length of their most recent tour: Williams-396 Days in Iraq or Pry-210 Days in Afghanistan. Pry has his eyes shut; he looks like he is grateful to be back. One says, Mickelson-Length of Service Undisclosed. Mickelson looks worried, like he's not going to getting comfortable in front of the camera, or maybe for a very long time.
Of course, the truth is that there is really no information at all in these photographs, or none that's conclusive in any way. You cannot compare one man's 210 days to another man's 255 days in Afghanistan by looking at their faces on film any more than you can really compare them at all, ever. Events have slipped into the folds of their memories; some will never come out again. And what is one day in combat compared to another?
But taken as a group, the series provides an impression of a moment—which is again only a construction: the moment between being over there, and being back here. Opton took the pictures on a view camera, the kind of contraption that seems to slow down time, which gave the soldiers the chance to get used to their position, to get out of and then back into their heads, to let their minds wander. The posed heads in the pictures look like screens where thoughts and feelings are in the midst of crossing, but with her choice of the shared time frame of her subjects, Opton is also capitalizing on the eventful here-nowness of a snapshot.
In 2008 and 2010, the Soldier photographs were seen as billboards in nine American cities. Now, they appear much closer to life size, at Platform Gallery in Seattle. The exhibition remains up at the Pioneer Square gallery through February 11. (Details are here of tonight's talk.)