World War II veterans are passing away at a fast pace, and as these heroes become fewer and fewer, so do stories of their distress, humor, courage and despair. We checked in with Wonderful Machine photographer Adam Ryan Morris who was enlisted by Milwaukee Magazine to make a series of portraits of a handful of veterans to go a long with a write up of their stories. Congratulations are also in order for Ryan for winning an American Illustration – American Photography award for one of the photos from the series below.
First off, how did you get involved with the Veteran’s portrait series?
Milwaukee Magazine hired me to make a series of portraits of veterans. These veterans were primarily men who often came home and didn’t say much about their war experiences. It is common for veterans to never tell their wives, families, or friends the deeply emotional stories of sacrifice, danger, escape, gore, and even glory, unlike today where society is able to spill everything on social media, this generation often kept silent. The portrait direction from the magazine was pretty loose, the images needed to fit together as a series in a unified tone while relating to each story.
What was involved during the planning and preproduction stages of the shoot?
The magazine’s art director at the time, Kathryn Lavey, and the writer, Howie Magner, kept me very involved early on in the writing process. Howie has a tremendous narrative sense and I pitched the idea of capturing these men on black – or something similarly spare so we could focus on the moment, emotion, and gesture. Being included from the ground up really help me learn and connect with the different veteran’s stories.
What kind of stories from the veterans did you encounter during the project ?
During WWII the military didn’t consider black men fit for the front lines. For instance, one story about a black veteran meant he was delegated to protect an ammunition dump. This vet faces discrimination and racism daily yet he remained and remains a true patriot.
On the other hand, I also found stories of true love. I photographed a portrait of a pilot and his wife, who snuck out onto his plane late one night so she could experience what he was doing. This ended up winning an entry from The American Illustration and American Photography (AI-AP) 32 contest.
The Pilot’s love story is very compelling, what went into that shot?
The man in the AI-AP award-winning image is a World War II Pilot named Paul Bruno. Paul has dementia and was having a really tough day and was very out of it. His wife, Frances Bruno was a big talker with a shinning personality, and did most of the storytelling. After a good hour of sitting knee to knee with them, all of my listening and patience paid off when we arrived at the moment I was after. Frances leaned close to her sweetheart towards the end and created a hierarchy that was just right. Sitting knee to knee with someone in a tight space is intimate and exhilarating. You find yourself in that in this unique space of connection and therefore viewers find themselves there too. When I made the picture I felt an immediate rush. I checked it on the LCD screen and began to pack up.
How do the portraits fit your photographic style?
Stylistically, I’ve always loved the simplicity of a face on a black or white background. The result is spare, simple, and uniquely powerful. There’s something intimate yet uncomfortable, beautiful yet odd about sitting knee to knee with a stranger and asking them questions. From my experience there’s something special about this physical proximity that immediately translates to viewers. It just doesn’t work the same when you’re standing farther away and shooting with a telephoto lens. I’ve tried it, and I always return to that basic 50mm lens or something similarly short. I would say this preference is a big part of my photographic style.
What was the biggest challenge while photographing the portraits?
The biggest challenge was that most of these guys are no longer very mobile, and most no longer live in their own homes. A home is an enriched environment that shows possessions and decoration that provide a lot of personal context about the subject. I often scout locations ahead of time, however, when it came to shooting this project, there just wasn’t time. I showed up with a van full of equipment with a plan to try and get one or more environmental setups, plus a portrait of their face against black. The setup really depended on the veteran’s mobility but I walked away with at least one face against black for each person.
What does the 32 AI-AP Award mean to you?
American Photography has always been that unattainable dream award book. I’ve submit to the them off and on for the last five years but was never selected until this time. It’s full of incredible photojournalism, portraiture, conceptual work, and images made for art or commerce. American Photography then commissions a graphic designer to create a hardcover book of the selected images.
We’re excited for the book, and it should be hitting mailboxes any day as 2016 comes to a close and 2017 begins. A panel of industry judges selected 335 images out of more than 8,900 entries to represent the best pictures from 2015.
See more of Adam at www.adamryanmorris.com.