November 2011 Issue
Home of the Brave
The Ohio History Center honors "The American Soldier" with a poignant photo exhibit of the men and women of wars past and present.
Pain, pride, fear, fatigue, triumph, tragedy.
Time ebbs and flows. But the faces of war never change.
That heartbreaking truth is poignantly documented at the Ohio History Center through Dec. 30 in “The American Soldier: From the Civil War to the War in Iraq,” a gripping display of photographs encompassing a century and a half of combat.
Cyma Rubin, the Manhattan producer, director and writer who’s curating the exhibition, earned an Emmy Award in 1999 for the Turner Network Television special, “Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs,” based on her previous retrospective that continues to tour the country. She also produced the Tony Award-winning 1971 Broadway musical, “No, No Nanette.”
The concept for Rubin’s latest work — an exhibit centering on the men and women who have risked their lives to protect our homeland — took hold on a Sunday afternoon 16 years ago, while she was perusing The New York Times Magazine
. A photo of a weary World War II GI taken in December 1944 caught her eye: After his first night of combat during the Battle of the Bulge, Cpl. Frank Johnson, of Brooklyn, New York, had been sent to a depot to collect supplies for his unit.
“Here was this guy,” Rubin recalls by phone from her home in New York, “wrapped tightly in a blanket and obviously scared to death. The photograph said to me, ‘This is the real story of the guys who go to war.’
“Although we often see pictures of soldiers, we don’t really see what it’s like to be soldiering,” she adds. “I thought about how riveting it would be to show the foot soldier — and to tell the story of the camaraderie, the heroics, the humor, the family, the life.”
The picture also reminded Rubin of her brother, who served in the 5th Armored Division during World War II.
“When he was dying of cancer,” she says softly, “the only thing Harvey seemed to care about was a box of snapshots from his four years in service. At his
funeral, all the guys he had remained buddies with came to say good-bye.”
At the time she happened upon The New York Times
image, Rubin was steeped in research for her exhibit of Pulitzer Prize shots.
“So,” the curator says, “I tucked the idea away in my one-of-these-days files.
“But,” she adds, “it never really left my mind.”
Then 9/11 happened.
Overnight, “The American Soldier” was a story begging to be told.
For three years, Rubin combed through more than 4,000 pictures at the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and made numerous pilgrimages to museums and historical societies around the United States. While painstakingly selecting the 116 shots she would ultimately use, Rubin also resolved to honor those whose talents captured the unforgettable images before her.
“These photographers were true artists who risked their lives to be there for us,” she says. “The immediacy of what they saw lives on.”
As she put the exhibition together, the curator hoped her endeavor would provide a powerful bridge of understanding for the viewer.
Rubin needn’t have worried.
The stories she’s heard have touched her heart.
When “The American Soldier” opened at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in 2007, a visitor approached with tears in her eyes. “My father survived D-Day,” she told Rubin, explaining how her dad participated in the battle that would be a major turning point of World War II. “And every day that he lived during my life, all he ever talked about were the barges heading for the beachhead, the landing, the aftermath.” The woman then led her over to one of the photos and pointed to a soldier. “That’s my father,” she cried. “Now, I understand.”
“Can you image the closure for her?” Rubin marvels.
Since “American Soldier” also offers pivotal history lessons, school groups often visit. When a third-grade class from South Carolina came to the Florence Civic Center to see the exhibit, an elementary-school student was mesmerized by the picture of a young mother and her three children encamped with their loved one during the Civil War. A docent gently approached the pupil and asked if he had any questions. After contemplating the image, the child wondered aloud what happened to the puppy the little boy in the photo was cuddling. “I’m sure the dog went home with his family after the war,” the museum staffer reassured him, as she led the youngster to the next image. Ten minutes later, the docent once again found the student standing in front of the photo that captivated him so much. “I know how that little boy feels about his daddy going to war,” he told her soberly, “because my daddy is in Iraq.”
“Suddenly,” Rubin says, “he didn’t feel so alone. The next day, the little boy brought his mother, and they spent 30 minutes looking at the picture and talking about it.
“The stories go on and on,” she adds proudly. “It’s amazing.”
Sharon Dean, the Ohio Historical Society’s director of museum and library services, understands why “The American Soldier” makes an impact everywhere it’s displayed.
“Cyma was very careful to choose images of soldiers that are so emotionally connecting, so emotionally riveting that when you look at them you can almost feel, taste and smell their experience and where they are,” she says.
As cases in point, Dean describes two photographs that resonate with her. The first, taken in 2003, is that of a soldier on the road to Baghdad, savoring the scent of a letter from his wife.
“The shot is so compelling,” Dean says, “because you realize how lonely he is and how that sense of smell comforts him. It elicits memories of home and his connection to it.”
The second photo Dean finds unforgettable is one of an American soldier rescuing a Japanese infant found in the hills of Saipan Island, Micronesia, in 1944. It was a place where hundreds of Japanese soldiers and their families committed suicide rather than surrender.
“The image is a moving reminder that soldiers retain a sense of humanity in what they’re doing,” Dean explains.
“For war isn’t just about death and destruction,” she reflects. “It’s also about having heart.”
For more information about the exhibit, visit ohiohistory.org.
To see additional photos from "The American Soldier" exhibit, click here.