Daily Picture Show

Civil War-Era Helicopters And Other Timeless Images Of War

For Phil Nesmith, a normal life has meant jumping out of planes at 3 a.m. "And I thought," he explains on the phone, "I need to be making pictures of this. Because it seems natural to me, but ... I'm not living a normal life."

MH64, 2007

MH64, 2007 Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary

This week marks the seven-year anniversary of his return from Iraq. Actually, it was his second return: Nesmith left the Army in 2000, but went back to Iraq shortly thereafter as a civilian engineer, embedded with the 1st Armored Division. And through it all, he took photos.

Palms, 2007

Palms, 2007 Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary

As he puts it, "I had never been in an environment that fostered that type of thinking," — i.e., thinking about art. Nevertheless, he had always dabbled. And one night in Iraq, he recalls, when soldiers were sharing their ambitions for life after the Army, he committed himself to pursuing the craft of photography.

"I just kept thinking about my experience [in Iraq]," he says. "Listening to everybody talk there ... [saying things] which were exactly like the things that my dad told me about me in his tours in Vietnam. The same things that my grandfather told me about World War II and Korea."

AH64, 2007 i i

AH64, 2007 Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary
AH64, 2007

AH64, 2007

Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary

He wanted to create an aesthetic to reflect that timelessness. Today he works in the niche medium of large-format, wet-plate photography — a form of photography that was used in the primitive days of photography. And the result is an odd confluence of era: like what appears to be a Civil War-era helicopter.

Palace Guard, 2007

Palace Guard, 2007 Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary

For his Iraq work, though, he employed a combination of modern and antique techniques. Because, he explained in an e-mail, "of the working environment, and speed needed to work in a place like Baghdad, digital afforded mobility and the speed." He continues to explain the process:

To make plate images from digital source material, an interpositive is created and then contact printed in the darkroom to the plate. The plate is created using a gelatin-based silver emulsion, which in the late 1800s was used to make glass negatives. I use a special developer that reverses that process and creates a positive on the plate. Obviously this is something that was not being done in the 1880s. It is a modern combination of a few photographic processes.

The one thing you probably won't see in Nesmith's images is outright horror or carnage. "That's what the news organizations are for," he says. What fascinates him are the landscapes that persist in the background of war. The strange shape of memory. The soldier's psyche.

Colors, 2007

Colors, 2007 Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary hide caption

itoggle caption Phil Nesmith/Irvine Contemporary

"I'm trying to make art about things that are important, instead of art about art," he says. "I want to do something that's about something. But finding that thing is the hard part."

Six photographs from Nesmith's series My Baghdad will appear in an upcoming exhibition called The Spectacle of War, opening mid-March in Dubai.


(Editor's Note: This text has been revised. It previously incorrectly stated that the Iraq series was made using the wet-plate format. It has been changed to properly explain the methodology, which mixes digital source material and antique developing. It has also been changed to clarify that Nesmith was not an active duty soldier upon his return to Iraq, when the digital images were made.)

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