Many of the contemporary images in “American Soldier” capture the psychological costs of war. The title of this 2004 photograph by Suzanne Opton says it all: Soldier Birkholz: 353 Days in Iraq, 205 Days in Afghanistan

Nelson-Atkins photography exhibit captures pride and anguish of American military life

The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art’s photography department has been on fire lately. Last season’s showing of Alexander Gardner’s “Across the Indian Country” photographs followed a riveting 2013-14 show of contemporary portraiture.

Now there is “American Soldier,” an emotional rollercoaster of an exhibit offering a march through our nation’s conflicts from the Civil War to Afghanistan.

More than 50 photographs, most drawn from the museum’s permanent collection, provide an intimate look at the men and women who fought and continue to fight in these wars, capturing their pride and discipline, weariness and psychological anguish.

Good-byes at the airport, Columbus, Ohio (2006) is one of the exhibit’s three photographs by Eugene Richards documenting a soldier’s farewell to his family as he departs for the Iraq War.

Organized by April Watson, the Nelson’s curator of photography, “American Soldier” grabs you from the first set of images: Eugene Richards’ shots of a soldier saying goodbye to his family as he departs for the Iraq War.

Even more heartbreaking is Australian Ashley Gilbertson’s photo of the bedroom of 21-year-old Marine Cpl. Christopher G. Scherer, who was killed by a sniper in Karmah, Iraq. With its pinups and sports banners, baseball caps and Hooters bumper sticker, the room stands as a memorial to a life cut short.

The show’s earliest photographs, including Timothy H. O’ Sullivan’s well known Civil War shot of dead soldiers strewn across a Gettysburg field, are just as gripping.

In short order, they give way to staged, U.S. Army Signal Corps photographs of World War I, when, Watson said, there was “a lot of censorship.”

Like the propagandistic newsreels of the time, the Signal Corps photos— of soldiers playing cards in the trenches, learning to throw hand grenades and fitting a gas mask on a mule—put a brave face on the horrors men endured.

Graphic photographs such as Larry Burrows’ Reaching Out, First-Aid Center During Operation Prairie (1966), changed the country’s attitude toward the Vietnam War.

Among the exhibit’s most iconic images is Joe Rosenthal’s Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945.

Most visitors will recognize Joe Rosenthal’s iconic World War II shot of soldiers “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” but the exhibit explores many-lesser known corners of that war.

A photograph by Herbert Gehr captures African American soldiers home on leave with family in a Harlem apartment. Another highlight is Wayne F. Miller’s arresting portrayal of WAVES in formation, their straight backs and the perfectly aligned seams of their stockings radiating discipline and commitment.

Vietnam, which brought atrocities like the My Lai Massacre into American living rooms, was a different matter. Photographs by Larry Burrows, Horst Faas and others changed the country’s attitude toward that war, and all those that have followed.

While reviewing photographs from recent wars, Watson noticed a change in tenor from the historical works. The contemporary images are more complex, she observed, capturing soldiers’ “vulnerability, fear and loss as well as heroism and strength.”

Nowhere is this shift in attitude captured more dramatically than in Suzanne Opton’s 2004 closeup of a soldier named “Birkholz,” his spirit deadened by 353 days in Iraq and 205 days in Afghanistan.

“American Soldier” offers a march through the nation’s multiple conflicts, including the Korean War, as seen in this photograph by David Douglas Duncan, Marine Withdrawal, Koto-ri, North Korea (1950).

“American Soldier” is topical, not only for its inclusion of new works. It opened amid spirited discussions of an article by James Fallows in the January/February issue of The Atlantic magazine.

In “The Tragedy of the American Military,” Fallows examined what he sees as the nation’s “reverent but disengaged attitude” toward the military, and the consequences of this attitude for policy and military spending.

Disengagement is not an option for viewers of “American Soldier.” Image after image brings us face to face with our soldiers’ youth and vulnerability, war’s toll on families, and the psychic angst of individual members of the armed forces.

“They train you to hate,” Private Greg Melendez of Acoma, New Mexico, relates in a searing narrative that accompanies a 2007 portrait of him taken by Christopher Churchill. “You go in as the greatest guy in the world and you come out with so much anger.”

Other recent images explore issues of race and class within the military. Still others provide an update on the inevitable clash of cultures that occurs when Americans go to war in foreign lands. We see it first in a 1967 photograph titled, “A Vietnamese Man Pours Tea While a U.S. Marine Relaxes and Examines a Pinup.”

The exhibit revisits the theme in a photograph by Richard Mosse, showing soldiers milling about the empty swimming pool at the palace of Saddam Hussein’s son Uday. Displayed nearby, a video of the same subject, made by Mosse and Trevor Tweeten, is accompanied by a soundtrack featuring a Muslim prayer and the pan-Arab national anthem, “My Homeland.”

While Watson sought to spark dialogue with this show, “I tried to strike as neutral a tone as possible in the selections,” she said. “People are going to make what they will of it.”

With more conflicts brewing, one inevitable conclusion is that these images of American soldiers will, sadly, be joined by others.

“American Soldier” continues at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak St., through June 21. Hours are 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday; 10 a.m.–9 p.m. Thursday and Friday. Admission is free. For more information: (816) 751-1278 or

Alice Thorson

Alice Thorson is the editor of KC Studio. She has written about the visual arts for numerous publications locally and nationally.

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