NPR Story
3:47 pm
Thu August 8, 2013

Veteran Documents His Unit In Tintype Photographs

Originally published on Mon November 4, 2013 8:29 am

Staff Sgt. Ed Drew has been in the military since 1999, most recently as an aerial gunner with the Air Force Combat Search and Rescue Unit in Afghanistan’s Helmand province.

He’s also pursuing a degree in fine arts at the San Francisco Art Institute.

While he was deployed to Afghanistan, Drew brought his equipment from art school, including equipment to make tintypes – an antiquated photographic process that reached its peak during the Civil War.

Drew’s tintype portraits of his unit were the first to be made in a war zone since the Civil War.

The beauty of [tintypes] is that they are an actual, physical thing … I was very involved in these plates, and every single one is unique.
–Ed Drew

A project for his son

Drew had been interested in tintype photography for many years, but decided to pursue this project after the birth of his second child.

“Suddenly I was well aware of my mortality,” Drew told Here & Now. “I’ve got to be around for this little guy. And then I started thinking about, ‘Well, what if I couldn’t?’ ”

Drew made the photographs for his son, so he would know his father through the people who were important to him.

Rising to the challenge

Under good circumstances, it’s hard for tintypes to come out well. In Afghanistan, Drew had to deal with heat, dryness, dust, lack of equipment — and having to fly combat missions. Sometimes Drew needed to stop in the middle of making a tintype to go to work.

But the difficulty of making tintypes was part of the reason Drew wanted to make them in Afghanistan.

“With digital I could snap off a million photos and, you know, dig through the ones I thought were the best ones,” Drew said. “The beauty of [tintypes] is that they are an actual, physical thing … I was very involved in these plates, and every single one is unique.”

Tapping into history

The idea of mortality and the historical legacy of tintypes during the Civil War weighed on Drew’s mind while he made portraits of his units.

“Some of those photos were the last photos their families ever saw,” Drew said of the Civil War tintypes. “So for me, it was trying to capture the essence of what those tintypists back in those days did, in my photos. And the whole idea of ‘Are these the last photos of these individuals?’”

Everyone in Drew’s unit came home safely, and he feels the tintypes allow the servicemen and women to be seen as individual humans.

“This work is about the guys that I work with,” Drew said. “And a lot of people, I think, forget.”

Guest

  • Ed Drew, fine artist and Afghanistan War veteran.
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