California Air National Guardsman Ed Drew‘s job as a gunner on combat search-and-rescue helicopters is one of the most dangerous in the military. When he got word he was heading to Afghanistan last spring, Drew, who’s also an artist, was inspired to make something lasting while he was there — in case he didn’t return.
Before shipping out, Drew taught himself the 19th-century tintype method of portraiture. It’s a painstaking, multi-step process with highly reactive chemicals; any misstep can ruin the outcome. But once the plates are varnished, they’re durable, lasting from generation to generation.
Drew says “I’m not an embedded photographer; I’m there to do the same job that my comrades… do.” His knowledge, “sweat” and experience as a soldier make for an intimate relationship between subject and photographer — as does the finicky work of making wet-plate photos in a desert. Drew calls the slow process “reflective,” noting that the exposure times can be six seconds, “which in photography terms is an eternity.”In Afghanistan, Drew devised his own method for making wet-plate tintypes in the heat and dust of a combat zone.
His “darkroom” was a cloth stretched over an open storage case. In between missions, he’d make pictures, often having to drop everything and sprint to the helicopter. The last time tintypes were made of soldiers in a war zone, to Drew’s knowledge, was during the American Civil War.
“And so the person — whether they’re staring into the actual camera or they’re looking away — they have to slow down,” Drew observes.
The portraits evoke a sense of the timelessness of war. The faces stare at us as if from the past; only the uniforms have changed since the Civil War. Drew isn’t compelled by any political agenda; he wants to highlight his comrades’ humanity and the strong sense of brotherhood he’s experienced since joining the service right out of high school.
Drew’s tintypes struck a chord with curators at San Francisco’s Robert Koch Gallery, which now represents the photographer. The gallery displayed a selection of Drew’s portraits at the internationally renowned Paris Photo Fair in November, where the images quickly sold out. Meanwhile, Drew’s story was picked up by dozens of national media outlets. Though all the attention has provided a career boost, Drew says it’s only inspired him to work even harder and find new ways to show the beauty of the people around him.
To that end he’s now turning his lens on a completely different community — a group of primarily African American and Hispanic low-income students who are gaining job and life skills thanks to a unique Bay Area program called The Garden Project. For the past few months, Drew has been making tintypes of the “Earth Steward Apprentices” who work at The Garden Project’s organic farm in San Bruno, sowing and harvesting vegetables for distribution to thousands of needy people in San Francisco food pantries.
Drew’s early life wasn’t easy. “My mother worked all the time, my real father was out of the picture,” the artist remembers. “I really had to learn how on my own to hold myself up.” Drew sees a lot of himself in the young people who are making their own way while working to help others.
Drew takes the best portraits when the students are relaxed. Before every pose, he chats with them, finding common ground and creating a bond that will help him tell their stories. He hopes casting their images within the context of fine art may help dispel negative stereotypes that often follow African American youth.
Cathrine Sneed, founder of The Garden Project, agrees, noting that after the experience of slavery, many African Americans “said that gardening isn’t for me.” But with Drew’s tintypes, connected as they are to that earlier time yet showing farming in a positive light, “it’s come full circle.”
“The garden is now a place that can uplift and not just hold you down,” says Sneed. She looks to Drew’s art to help people to see the beauty both of the land and of the young people who are making it bloom.
Funding for KQED Arts is provided by The William and
Flora Hewlett Foundation. Support is also provided by the members of KQED.