“Service” by paul solberg
During Fleet Week of 2010—that springtime ritual when thousands of young military servicepeople descend upon New York City—photographer Paul Solberg documented hundreds of soldiers, sailors and airmen in a series of intimate, haunting portraits. Using vintage Polaroid film, he aimed for an effect tinged with both timelessness and nostalgia; unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), the film began to deteriorate soon after the images were taken. Albeit damaged, some could be saved and scanned, with the unplanned “accident” of their creation adding an extra visual frisson to the experience. Now, New York’s Casa de Costa gallery is showing them in an exhibition called “Service,” running through April 18th.
How did you decide to photograph young servicemen, and why did you choose vintage Polaroid film for the project?
The month of May came around and suddenly the city was full of people in uniform. Like most New Yorkers, I realized another year had flown by and it was Fleet Week again.
In 2009 Dotson Rader gave me the book Great Poets of World War I. It took me a while to open the pages, thinking there were more interesting subjects to read about. But I eventually opened the book and couldn’t put it down, drawn into these arresting poems from these kids on the front lines nearly 100 years ago.
‘Service’ was the most serendipitous of projects. I didn’t plan a strategy for it; rather, I followed the story as it unfolded. In 2010 I decided I was going to at least try to photograph the servicemen and -women during Fleet Week. A camera shop gave me some old SX-70 Polaroid film that was going to be discarded. I took my first picture down on 16th and 9th Avenue, and the first words of the story appeared. I ran back to buy the rest of the bad film.
It must have been a terrible moment when the photographs began to deteriorate.
It wasn’t really. I lost my breath for a moment and then thought, This must be the story. It was such an interesting adventure up to that point, I almost would have been happy if it had ended with blank pictures. Fortunately I had scanned some of them, and the surviving 20 faces are what you see in this series.
Describe your partner Christopher Makos’ reaction to this catastrophe [Solberg and Makos work together professionally as the Hilton Brothers].
He shared in my shock and acceptance. We are the usual sounding board for each other’s projects.
How do the images capture the idea of military service today, and even throughout time?
Is our human experience in a loop? The faces of servicemen photographed by George C. Beresford could be today’s youth. Do we repeat the lives we once lived?
Describe the role of accidents and unintended consequences in art. Have you experienced this before?
A creative person is always looking for a good accident, whether they’re filmmakers, painters, writers, actors or photographers. Your eyes are always open for ‘the magic accident,’ where something beyond your initial intention jumps out at you.
How does this exhibition reflect your own aesthetic, and where do these images fit in your body of work?
One tries to stay closest to who they are and what they’re trying to say. This project didn’t have a strategy or any initial objective. I was simply curious to meet the subjects and acknowledge their service.
How long did you spend with a typical subject? What information did you collect?
It was ‘guerilla filmmaking,’ where you’re rolling up to a stranger in Times Square on a bike with a funny old camera, so most conversations were brief. Much to my surprise, most of them were flattered to be photographed. And they were the most open of any of my subjects. There was no need for instruction. There were no fake smiles. They just gave you honesty.
Aside from aesthetics, what do you venture your audience will experience when viewing these works?
If it makes a few of us a little more aware, as it did for me, I will be pleased.
“Service” by Paul Solberg runs through April 18th at New York’s Casa de Costa gallery. For more information, visit www.casadecosta.com