There was no parade. No fireworks or flyovers, either. It was technically a book signing, a dozen or so people gathered on a pleasant Sunday afternoon near the teen fiction section in Bookmarks.
But as Veterans Day observations and remembrances go, this small event had traction. It made you think.
Martin Tucker, a teacher at Summit School and award-winning photographer, had just driven in from Elizabeth City to talk about his book, “Vietnam Photographs From North Carolina Veterans — The Memories They Brought Home.
And the crowd, though small in number, paid close attention as Tucker told the story about how an unlikely series of events resulted from an academic exercise in a visual book told through the eyes — and camera lenses — of soldiers who served in Vietnam.
“This is not from ABC or the nightly news,” Tucker said. “It was from the guy who lived out in Pfafftown.”
Tucker had put in a Saturday appearance at the Museum of the Albemarle, and had a talk/book signing scheduled for Bookmarks later Sunday afternoon.
So he was driving, a captive audience of one, and already thinking about the book when his phone rang. He’s told the story about the project many times, but he was more than happy to go over it once more.
“It didn’t start out as an idea about a book,” Tucker said. “It really is amazing nobody else thought of it before.”
“It” was his central premise — showing the photographs taken by young soldiers — their memories — halfway around the world in Vietnam.
Snapshots, both in black-and-white and color, popped off by young men barely removed from high school carrying rifles and portable cameras around their necks and in their rucksacks.
The project started in 2003 as a classroom exercise. Tucker, a Vietnam-era veteran who served in the Navy, was teaching photography classes at the Sawtooth Center for Visual Art when he got the idea to see if any veterans had old negatives that students could use to practice making prints in an old-fashioned darkroom.
“I’d seen beautiful black-and-white photographs of flowers and landscapes and mountain ranges,” he said. “But nothing really that told a story or made you want to look at it for a long period of time.”
He put up a few flyers around town and waited to hear back. The general answer that rolled in about three weeks later: Not many veterans had negatives. But nearly all of them had photos they’d taken themselves that they wanted to show him.
“The pictures were just amazing,” Tucker said. “And shot by 18 and 19-year-old boys. They were all cropped, taken at the decisive moment, framed just the right way … all of the things we talk about in photography classes, they just did.”
Old soldiers brought their photos in albums, boxes and bags. Tucker looked through them and kept a journal about the subject matter and who took them.
While doing so, the proverbial lightbulb moment struck. Instead of a simple classroom project that would have resulted in what Tucker calls a “bulletin board display,” the photos deserved an entire exhibit.
He estimates that he looked at some 2,500 photos, scanned perhaps 400 “maybes” and set about scrounging for a little financial backing to get it off the ground. “We raised just enough money for frames and to have mats cut,” he said.
Tucker pared those 400 to 60, and set up in 2004 the exhibition, which was called “A Thousand Words: Photographs by Vietnam Veterans.”
“You know what you’ve seen before and what would push the story ahead,” he said of the whittling process. “There were a lot of glancers. But once in a while, one of them would just pop up that would make you think, ‘That should have been on the cover of Time.’”
A tour and a book
Plenty of very talented photographers shot plenty of outstanding pictures in Vietnam.
Haunting images — one of a young Vietnamese girl running from a napalm attack and another showing the point-blank execution of a Viet Cong soldier during the Tet Offensive — captured plenty of attention and influenced public opinion.
But nobody thought about displaying photographs shot by the soldiers themselves. And once his exhibition was unveiled, things really took off.
“There was a boatload of press,” he said. A story on NPR was carried nationwide. “People started calling from as far away as Washington state and Florida asking ‘Is it going to travel?’”
He hadn’t thought about it, but the more he did, the more it made sense. Tucker said he managed to borrow five wooden crates from SECCA and the exhibit went mobile.
Then somebody from the N.C. Museum of History called. They wanted the exhibit — for a year. It was on display for four, from 2005 through 2009.
From there came the unlikeliest turn of all, a book deal in 2017, after someone at the museum put Tucker in touch with the right publisher.
“Vietnam Photographs From North Carolina Veterans” was published in August, and Tucker’s been on the go many weekends since.
“I’m not salesman,” he said at Bookmarks Sunday. “I’m not trying to sell books. That’s not the point. This is just a look inside of what they (veterans) wanted to show us.
“It just took off and after a while, all I did was try and keep it between the lines.”