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The timeless art of war

Air guardsman uses centuries-old technology to capture modern soldiers' portraits

A local member of the California Air National Guard is grabbing headlines by using Civil War-era photo technology to capture images of modern soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

Ed Drew, a staff sergeant serving with the 129th Rescue Wing stationed at Moffett Field, has received critical acclaim for his series of portraits of men and women who served along with him in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan.

The images, captured in April during Drew's deployment, were made using a method first popularized during the mid- to late-1800s. Commonly referred to as "tintype," the photos are created by exposing a a chemically treated metal plate to light for several minutes, before finishing the process in a darkroom. The result is a black and silver mirror-image of the subject.

In Drew's case, his subjects were his partners in the 129th Rescue Wing. He asked them to hold their poses for around five minutes, while the chemical reaction between the light and silver nitrate caused an image to bloom on the metal plates.

By the end of Drew's deployment, he had amassed a collection of stark and dusty simulacra -- an anthology of faces and personalities. The soldiers, mostly clad in their camouflage uniforms and flak jackets, stare into the camera lens or off into the distance. They sit, crouch and stand, many of them clutching their weapons, while a few are unarmed. All wear a solemn expression.

The images have a rugged feel, driving home the grit it takes to throw oneself into a combat zone. The spare, two-tone palate lends a gravity to the pictures. And as Drew put it, the ancient feel of the tintype technique reminds the viewer of the "timelessness of war."

Capturing an image on tintype is an arduous process, Drew said. Over the course of the project he got to know his colleagues in a way he likely wouldn't have otherwise, as he actually had to sit with them in silence and stillness, as they posed.

"There was that connection to the medium, to the actual photographer and that was very important to me," he said. "I literally had to have their time."

He also said he likes the physicality of the technology. Drew has been taking photos since 1998, but he is now studying sculpture at the San Francisco Art Institute, and said he wanted to get away from the ephemeral nature of digital images and make something with both literal and figurative weight.

In addition to his interest in working in three dimensions, he said the birth of his son also influenced his decision to work with tintype. "I wanted my son to be able to say, 'My father actually made a photograph of these people he cared about.'"

Drew's work has been featured in the New Yorker's blog, Photo Booth and on the KQED program Spark.

"I think what everybody was blown away by was the story," he said, referring to the fact that the entire project was simply a work of passion. He isn't a photojournalist and he wasn't paid to take the images. Indeed, it took determination to set up a functional tintype production studio at his outpost in the middle of rural Afghanistan.

Drew took time between flying rescue missions in his unit's HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter where he served as a combat gunner -- manning the large .50 caliber machine gun to provide covering fire when necessary.

Drew has two exhibitions of his work on the horizon. He will be featured in the Veteran's Voices IV group show opening on Nov. 8, to be held at Rhythmix Cultural Works, at 2513 Blanding Ave. in Alameda. After that it's off to the Paris Photo international art photography exhibition.

"For me, it's like a dream come true," Drew said. "I can't believe I'm part of this. I never thought in a million years this would have happened."

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