Daily Art Moment: Don Unrau

From the portfolio War Story: Vietnam Veterans, Don Unrau, 13 5/16 x 14 1/8 inches, pigment print. A horizontal, rectangular, black and white photo positioned on the top half of a vertical white rectangle. The photo shows a white man sitting in an armchair, facing the viewer with legs crossed at the knee. He looks directly at the viewer with a neutral expression. He has dark hair and full beard, wears a white shirt and jeans. Behind him is the interior of a home with plants, dining room table and chairs and a kitchen seen through a doorway. Below the photo is a poem in the man’s own handwriting. It reads: Nam means loss. Nam means terror. /Nam means pride. Nam means courage. / Nam means rejection. Nam means betrayal. / “Coming home” means tears. “Coming home” means grief. / “Coming home” means sadness. “Coming home” means relief. / All will continue to be lived & to be remembered. / Forgiveness is the final battle!

Don Unrau served as a U.S. Army Combat Medic in Vietnam. He made his first photographs during the war, and has concentrated his photographic attention on veterans, conflict, and the aftermath of war ever since. Between 1984 and 1989, he invited Vietnam War veterans to express personal reflections—handwritten thoughts, poems, prayers, and essays about their war experiences—and then photographed each contributor. He explains, “All I asked was they write something about ‘Vietnam.’ It didn’t matter to me how much they wrote, or what they wrote…the sadness, pathos, patriotism. They gave me what they could, which was a lot and I am grateful for what they did.”

Unrau considers “War Story,” a portfolio of twenty prints, to be an “extended portrait” that documents memories and feelings these Vietnam veterans have carried with them since returning to the United States: “The portraits, with their handwritten sentences individualizes their emotions, giving viewers the possibility of increased understanding of the person photographed. The writings are also a way for me to articulate some of the same feelings and emotions that I too have had as a Vietnam veteran.”

Julia Dolan, The Minor White Curator of Photography

Don Unrau (American, born 1950). Roy Opp, from the portfolio War Story: Vietnam Veterans, 1986 (negative); 2015 (print). Pigment print. Museum Purchase, 2015.102.1k #VeteransDay

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