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Men in War

Herbert Lotz's photos of his fellow Vietnam soldiers feel disturbingly timely

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Herbert Lotz was a soldier once ... and young.

He was plucked out of Chicago in 1968, and plunked back down a world away in Vietnam. He had studied for a year at the Art Institute of Chicago, and as an aspiring artist, he packed a camera along with his fatigues and weapons. Away in the jungle, he managed to shoot heartbreaking black-and-white pictures of the young men who fought and died alongside him.

A small collection of 14 photos from 1968 line the front room of Conrad Wilde Gallery in a timely exhibition called The Floating World, which also showcases the fine color photography of Samuel Ace.

There's nothing objective about the pictures Lotz took of his buddies. There's no trace of the photojournalist in these intimate images of young men sleeping, smoking, staring off into space and otherwise decompressing from the missions that daily and nightly threatened their lives. Lotz's compassion for these teen soldiers facing death is palpable: He was one of them.

"Sleeping During the Day" is a lovely work, lovingly composed, of a soldier fast asleep on his cot. Lotz must have stood quietly over him, the way a watchful mother or father or lover might have done back home. Lost in a deep slumber, the young man is oblivious to the camera above him. He stretches his right arm diagonally across the bed, and rests the other lightly on his belly. Light falls on his naked chest and on the crumpled white sheet below him.

The photographer lingers over the smooth skin and muscular curves of this young man's flesh. His youthful beauty is haunting, and you can't help but feel uneasy for him. Guest curator Margo Donaldson, a Tucsonan who runs a gallery in New Mexico, where Lotz now lives, writes that the soldiers went off on dangerous nighttime forays, then slept off their exhaustion during the day. You wonder whether this soldier managed to dodge enough guerrillas to survive into middle age. He'd be in his middle or late 50s now, with a paunch maybe, and a couple of grandkids. Sleep is like a little death; perhaps this beautiful youth's noontime nap was an inadvertent foreshadowing.

In "Portrait of a Soldier," the G.I. is awake. (It might even be the same kid.) He may not be lost in dreams, but he's lost in thought. Caught in profile, he's unsmiling and solemn--or maybe just exhausted--as he bends his head down over his chest and arms, all pumped up into big muscles. Light streams in from the barracks window, but the grim building is still claustrophobic. This man's in the Army now, and he's got nowhere to run: Outside, the jungle is full of terrors.

Lotz is good at picturing the mundane ugliness of war. He may not photograph its searing travesties--the children screaming, the women blown to pieces, the soldiers hemorrhaging blood. But he takes note of the jungle encampment scraped bare of tropical plants, the dispiriting rows of beds jammed into cramped living quarters, the electrical wires slicing across the sky.

And he uses these elements to advantage in his careful compositions, where they take on metaphorical overtones. "Portrait of a Soldier 2" is a close-up of a young white guy outside, looking grimly into the camera. Behind him, the once-fertile Vietnamese soil has been reduced to a packed-down patch of dirt; the pointy-roofed barracks rise up behind. In "Portrait of a Soldier 6," a big black man poses on the steps at the doorway of his barracks, holding its tiny door ajar. He's the very picture of strength and vigor, a man ready to burst out of this confined space.

Several group shots capture the captive audiences at USO entertainments. The soldiers train their little cameras on the famous stars on the unseen stage, but Lotz turns around and points his camera back at them. He wants the faces in the crowd, not the Bob Hopes delivering their one-liners. The group portraits Lotz made at these shows are wonderful friezes of humanity, stopped-time pictures of men who are individuals and universal soldiers at the same time.

"Watching the U.S.O. Show" No. 2 and No. 3 depict the same group of men several seconds apart. They're standing and sitting on makeshift wooden bleachers, looking at the general direction of the show, but they're not paying close attention. No one smiles; the soldiers fiddle with cigarettes, or twist hats, look down or up or away. The forced gaiety of the show seems to allow them some time to themselves, and the soldiers are more absorbed in their own thoughts than in anything else.

These group shots offer penetrating little portraits. One soldier raises his head up in No. 2, but he's squinting, and his eyes are almost closed; by No. 3, he's staring at the ground. Someone else is holding his fist to his chin, like Rodin's "Thinker." A very young soldier, with blonde bangs plastered over his forehead Beatles-style, gazes dully ahead, looking vulnerable and shell-shocked.

With their '60s hairdos and aviator sunglasses and Vietnam-era uniforms, these soldiers are tethered to a particular time and place and tragedy. But they're Everyman, too, universal soldiers caught in the oldest con there is, young men fighting wars for old men who stay safely away. They're a little like the dead in those medieval paintings of the dance of death, where a skeleton leads the unlucky away.

Like those painted medieval butchers and bakers--and like the young American soldiers in 2006 Iraq--these soldiers in 1968 Vietnam look pained. Their faces register their shock and bewilderment that their lives may soon be taken so carelessly away.

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