The tintype photo shows a young soldier in uniform, his pale eyes barely visible under the brim of his hat. They are eyes that have seen hell on earth. To the right is another tintype, showing a young man with closely cropped hair wearing an unzipped jacket, collar up, over a white crewneck shirt.
The eyes and the steely expression are the same. It is the same man.
The images are part of a collection of tintypes displayed in “War and Peace,” a temporary exhibit at the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle. Exhibit creator Melissa Cacciola photographed 16 men and nine women of various backgrounds, ages and roles in the armed forces, in uniform and civilian attire, in an exploration of war, identity and the meaning of military service.
“ ‘War and Peace’ makes visible the present-day faces of those in service, a cross-section of our society that we may not often have the chance to meet,” Cacciola said. “Through the tintype, our humanity — epic and small — becomes transfixed by the intrinsic characteristics of one of the earliest photographic processes.”
Tintype portraiture, in which photographic images are captured on thin sheets of metal, was invented in the 1850s and remained popular until the early 1900s. The medium is commonly associated with the Civil War, most notably the portraits of Mathew Brady, who brought his darkroom to the battlefield to document the First Battle of Bull Run (also known as First Manassas) in 1861.
Cacciola said she became interested in tintyping in graduate school, when she worked with a collection of Civil War tintypes in a class on the care and treatment of photographs. “And I was just hooked,” she said. “I couldn’t get it out of my mind, how beautiful these portraits were.”
“I began ‘War and Peace’ during the anniversary year of September 11 as a way of reflecting on how this event impacted the nation and New York City,” said Cacciola, who lives in Brooklyn. “Many of the people I photographed for my project enlisted because of 9/11.
“We often talk about warfare in technological terms, but there is a human side to it,” she said. “I wanted to create intimate portraits. And considering the origin of tintyping, it was also a unique opportunity to explore the rich history of the tintype and its beginnings documenting the Civil War.”
During summer 2011, Cacciola photographed 25 current and former members of the armed forces, using a 19th-century camera and lens. Although each session took about two hours, the tintyping process is relatively fast, she said, so the subjects were able to see their portraits before they left the session.
The reaction? “Genuine amazement,” she said. “Also, the pleasure of seeing this really unique process and seeing yourself transformed in a way that you didn’t expect.” One member of the Coast Guard wore a hat that had belonged to his father, Cacciola said, and told her that he could see a lot of his father in his face.
Cacciola asked each of her subjects — whom she identified by first name and military rank — to fill out a form telling their stories. Some were reluctant to write about themselves, she said, but others eloquently described their experiences in the military.
“Very few places have convinced me that actual hell exists. The deserts of Iraq are one of them,” wrote Travis, who served as a lance corporal in the Marine Corps from 2002 to 2006. “During day operations, in addition to 170 pounds of gear strapped onto your body, you are subjected to temperatures of 120 degrees Fahrenheit, a blinding sun and a harsh, sand-filled wind that scrapes a layer off any exposed skin.”
Samantha, who served in Iraq and Kuwait as a staff sergeant with the Marine Corps, wrote that “doing humanitarian missions overseas was the best experience of my life, as well as working with wounded warriors.”
Most of the men and women depicted in the tintype portraits would not be mistaken for Civil War soldiers. The collection encompasses all branches of the military, as well as the diversity of age, gender and ethnicity that characterizes the armed services today.
Museum Director Lin Ezell said the exhibit captures “the strong visual image of today’s men and women in uniform.”
The National Museum of the Marine Corps is operated by the Marine Corps in partnership with the Marine Corps Heritage Foundation. Its mission, Ezell said, is “to protect and preserve the material culture of the Marine Corps so the public has a greater understanding of American history and the Marine Corps’s role there.”
“What’s unique about us is that we also play a decided role in the education, training and recruitment of Marines,” she said. “We like to think this is a great place for a granddad and a granddaughter to have a discussion about maybe that’s what she’d like to do with her life, to be a Marine.”
She said the museum attracts nearly a half-million visitors a year to Prince William County.
“We try very hard to be part of the fabric of the community,” she said. “We’re not here just for the tourists who [come via] I-95. . . . We try hard to have these changing exhibits like [‘War and Peace’], so we always have something fresh for the returning local visitor.”
“War and Peace” can be seen on the museum’s second deck through Dec. 1.
Barnes is a freelance writer.