“A picture is worth a thousand words.”
“The eyes are the window to the soul.”
Trite as these sayings may be, they offer possible explanations for why we find portraits—whether they are painted, drawn, or photographed—so compelling. Anyone who has visited the National Portrait Gallery (my personal favorite of the Smithsonian museums), or browsed through the Library’s Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, or even simply gazed on a family snapshot, knows there is something uniquely fascinating about looking into the face of an individual captured in a portrait.
The power of the portrait—and the fact that the Veterans History Project (VHP) houses a vast array of them within our collections—led us to choose portraiture as the theme of a new, temporary visual exhibit on display in the Library of Congress’ Jefferson building. When VHP was offered the chance to display visual materials as part of the Library’s Agile Cases program, we puzzled over how best to represent the richness and diversity of our collections, particularly given that so many of the stories in our archive take the form of audio and video oral history interviews. Given VHP’s emphasis on the individual experience of war, focusing on portraits seemed like a natural fit—what better way to represent personal stories than through pictures of the individuals themselves?
This decision was reinforced once we dove into the collections. Military portraits—in many shapes and forms—abounded. This wasn’t very surprising, given the strong connection between military service and portraiture. Throughout history, soldiers have had their portrait created, whether in paint or on film, to mark their military service. Since World War I, veterans have had photographic portraits taken at the beginning of their service, while at home on leave, while serving, and upon returning home. Many of these portraits have made their way into the VHP archive, either to accompany an oral history interview or as part of larger photograph collections.
Given the wealth of portraits in our collection, we decided to organize the cases around three particular subthemes, one for each of the three cases. The first case features a collage of many different types of portraits found in VHP collections. Veterans pose in uniform, such as in the case of Edith Rene Porter-Stewart, or in front of their aircraft, like Woodrow Joseph Bergeron, Jr. They sit with family pets and on the front steps of their parents’ houses, in tents and with their buddies in the field. These portraits hint at the larger stories behind them—for example, what to make of the veteran posing while wearing hospital scrubs, a lei, and a Purple Heart?
The second case offers examples of “before-and-after” series of photographs—that is, portraits of veterans taken at the time of their service, and then many years later, usually at the time they are interviewed for the Veterans History Project. These portraits provide a sense of the veteran’s service as one element of his or her larger life story; by viewing these photos side by side, we glimpse what came after the original military portrait was taken. One featured veteran, Aldo Panzieri, was a portraitist himself: he spent much of his time in Vietnam taking photographs of his fellow soldiers.
The third case offers examples of military portraits that were created not by cameras, but with pencils, ink, and paint. For servicemen and women with artistic inclinations who were stationed overseas, drawing and painting became a way to process what they were seeing and experiencing. The portraits in this case range from a watercolor painted by Tracy Sugarman, a Navy veteran who took part in D-Day, to pen-and-ink sketches created by VHP participant Mimi Lesser, a civilian volunteer for the USO who drew servicemen who were recuperating in hospitals stateside and in the European Theater during WWII. The portraits in this case offer a stunning visual reminder that artistic expression, and the impulse to document one’s experiences through art, occurs even during wartime—and even in extreme conditions, such as a POW camp.
On display through January 1st, 2016, “Faces of the Veterans History Project” is housed in the agile display cases on the west side of the first floor of the Jefferson building, adjacent to the Great Hall and the first floor information desk. Please visit if you’re in the DC area! And while you’re at the Library, you can visit VHP’s Information Center, located in room LM-109 in the Madison building, and open from 10 am to 3 pm, Monday through Friday.