A powerful, photographic tribute to American soldiers and Marines from the Civil War to the Iraq War opens Tuesday at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
From the opening panel of the American Soldier exhibit – you immediately see the difference. The photo of the Union soldier from Civil War is staged in a photographer’s studio. He poses with his rifle. The Iraq War soldier is in an urban warfare setting, his finger poised on the trigger of his AK-47.
But there are similarities as the curator, Cyma Rubin, points out, “It’s the same face just a different uniform.”
The young faces of war stare back at you, some hauntingly, from among the 116 photographs.
Rubin also included photos showing the families because they served too.
There’s a black and white print from the Civil War shows a father, mother three children and a dog at a Union campsite. Rubin said it captivated a little boy during his class tour because that boy’s father was serving in Iraq at the time.
She said that interlude made the three years and 4,000 photographs she reviewed to create the exhibition all worthwhile.
“I had this concept, I always work from a concept, of showing the humanity of the American Soldier,” Rubin said. “This is not a blood and guts exhibition. It’s humanity, camaraderie, family, humor, heroism, and of course the ultimate sacrifice in some cases.”
Retired Major Scott Macksam first saw the exhibit in Louisville. It so moved him that he made it his mission to bring the American Soldier exhibit to the bay area where he’s a trustee at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
His favorite photo is a close-up photo of a Marine who had battled for two days and nights in the Marshall Islands during World War II.
Another WWII photo is the favorite of the museum’s education director, Nevin Sitler.
It shows an unidentified soldier holding a sole surviving infant on an island where the Japanese soldiers and their families committed suicide rather than be captured by Americans. That soldier is his wife’s grandfather. They have a copy of the picture at their home.
“It’s awesome as a historian to be able to put provenance and name to the face because right now it’s just an unknown soldier,” Sitler said.
As the curator, Rubin looked for rare photos that hadn’t been seen much, but she also chose a few iconic pictures like the photo of flag draped coffins returning from the Iraq War that the White House did not want released to the public.
And there are some surprises like a photo of female volunteers in the Union Army. Rubin said the women’s troop was made up of debutantes and prostitutes and no one could tell the difference. The American Soldier Photography Exhibit opens March 18 and runs through July 13, 2014 at the St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. N.E. St. Petersburg, FL.
You can listen to the radio version of this story on WUSF News.