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A bridge from the past
Ellen Susan's 'Soldier Portraits' captures identity and individuality.
‘1LT Jeffery Des Jarlais,' 2007. Ambrotype by Ellen Susan

An exhibit of portraits by local photographer Ellen Susan opened earlier this month at the Jepson Center. Susan creates portraits of contemporary soldiers using a 150 year-old process, known as wet collodion, first introduced around the time of the Civil War.

The juxtaposition of modern soldiers rendered visually in a manner previously reserved for soldiers in history books and Ken Burns’ documentaries is powerful – creating a distinct lineage across a century and a half of duty and conflict.

While Susan creates a bridge between historical eras – illuminating the bond between all soldiers – she simultaneously highlights the individuality of each soldier.

“I’m trying to evoke different aspects of a person’s individuality and humanity, which is a little unusual when you think about a soldier,” Susan explains.

Understanding the individual soldier – as opposed to the images of anonymous uniforms that flooded the media during the peak of the war in Iraq – was part of the goal for Susan.

“I became interested in soldiers because I had never known one and we were in the midst of these wars,” she explains. “It occurred to me that this process being tied to the first war of the photographic era would be a pretty interesting and compelling way to make pictures of soldiers.”

The photographic process captures light on a glass plate – known as an Ambrotype – rather than a negative, creating a one–of–a–kind image. Included in the Jepson show are a mix of original plates and digital reproductions, which Susan creates by scanning the plates and then printing in a larger format.

The photographic process is a challenge. Each subject sits for a three hour session, during which Susan must develop each plate as it is shot. A session might yield only 10 images – a far cry from ease of digital cameras or even rolls of film.

The results, however, justify the effort. The process nets a richly detailed image with a remarkably saturated quality – something that stems in part from the way the plate captures color. They are particularly sensitive to yellows and browns, explains Susan, while pointing at an image of a young man whose face is covered in dramatic freckles.

The portrayals of the soldiers vary widely – some are photographed looking into the camera; others leave faces unseen. But each soldier maintains an identity, even if it is only the name embroidered on the back of their cap.

In “SGT Lane Patterson and the Lucky Monkey,” the viewer is shown only SGT Patterson’s hands, which clasp a small stuffed animal and crucifix.

“I ask them to bring all their uniforms and anything they take with them when they go on a deployment,” says Susan.
Several of the soldiers hold family portraits.

Although the photos are permeated with an inexplicable intimacy – an unguarded quality that stands in direct contrast to the way soldiers are perceived – none of them are smiling, a consequence of the necessary exposure time, which can range from 5 seconds to a full minute.

If you smile for that period of time, it’s both very difficult and it looks funny,” says Susan.

Encompassing more than three years of work, the soldier portrait project is coming to a close soon, and Susan has mixed feelings. On one hand, she is glad to be able to move forward creatively, but on the other, she worked diligently over the years to create these images.

“I always want to make better, more compelling images,” she says, explaining that she has received a commission from a museum in Columbus, GA to spend time photographing soldiers there for a special exhibit. Once she completes the project in Columbus, she will move on to new subjects.

“I’m comfortable that the statement has been made, but I’m happy to have the opportunity to spend another year doing it.”

Ellen Susan’s exhibit “Soldier Portraits” runs through July 25.

Panel Discussion: Photographic Depictions of Soldiers throughout History

When: April 22, 7 p.m.

Where: The Jepson Center

Cost: Free and open to the public

Military Family Day at the Telfair, including meet–and–greet with Susan

When: April 25, 2–5 p.m.

Where: The Jepson Center

Cost: Free and open to the public