The 'Nam Era: Never Forgotten
Upstate Photographer Exhibits Images from the Vietnam War’s Aftermath
In what is sure to be an emotionally impactful art exhibit, Upstate South Carolina resident and photographer J. Michael Johnson will showcase 40 photographs about the Vietnam War at West Main Artists Co-op in Spartanburg Tuesday, May 7, through Saturday, June 1.
The ’Nam Era: Never Forgotten will be open for free public viewing Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. A free public reception for this exhibit will be on Thursday, May 16, 5-9 p.m., during the city’s monthly ArtWalk.
“This is an exhibit that I look forward to with trepidation,” Co-op Chair Beth Regula said. “I really want to see these images about the Vietnam War, yet I know it will be difficult for me and probably others, too. But the war is part of our American history and something we must never forget. By seeing these pictures, it is my hope that people will find healing and peace. The photographer is doing us a great service by presenting this exhibit, helping us understand what happened and what has happened in the aftermath that took so many lives.”
“These 41 digital images capture a celebration of the veterans of the Vietnam Conflict, honoring both their fallen and living comrades-in-arms,” Johnson said. “I've been told by visitors that veterans and veterans’ family members have come back to visit this exhibit several times just to put the 'Nam Era behind them.” This exhibit has been seen at other regional galleries.
All of the photography in this exhibit depicts different aspects of the Vietnam War, such as a biker weeping at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, and a soldier standing guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It took the artist about six months to select and prepare the haunting and telling images for this exhibit. All of the pictures were taken between 2002 and 2013. The framed images will be for sale, ranging from $300 to $800.
As a professional photographer, Johnson captures images of many different moments in life, such as weddings, street life, nature, motorcycles, and a freewheeling lifestyle. However, his photography about the Vietnam War stands out as some of his most meaningful. He was inspired to create this exhibit because he was in the military during the Vietnam Era but was never sent into battle. However, he had service friends who were sent to “'Nam, Laos and Cambodia. Even today I still do not know what happened to those men and women I met in service,” he said.
He further explained: “Memorial Day weekend, May 1992, I did a trip to The Wall in Washington, DC, where I tried to read two letters left under a name engraved on The Wall. Because of the large amount of people visiting that day, I could not read those letters. So I did what I do best: I photographed them to read later in my studio. After reading the letters, I never thought a whole lot more about them again until Memorial Day weekend 1997, five years to the day, within minutes of the same time in 1992, I photographed these same letters again. The hairs on the back of my neck stood straight up. My mind produced crazy, mind-boggling thoughts of the 'Nam Era.
“Unknowingly, I started photographing this collection during that Memorial Day weekend 1997, while photographing Rolling Thunder members riding their Harley-Davidson motorcycles in their Freedom Ride from the Pentagon to The Wall,” he said.
Johnson was born and reared in East Tennessee and has lived in the Southeast for his entire his life. He began taking images and working in his darkroom more than 35 years ago. His love of photographing the motorcycle lifestyle and other subjects, and his self-taught methods truly define his subjects. His experiences have produced a collection of work that documents bikers and biker ladies riding on Daytona’s Main Street, along with the serious side of these riders as they remember the Vietnam Era, showing them remembering a fallen comrade, a brother, a sister or a father whose name is now engraved forever in the black granite. Many of Johnson’s fine art prints are in private collections.
Since 1997, Johnson’s photography and writing about Daytona’s Bike Week, as well as many other motorcycle rallies and events, have been featured in “Easyriders,” “Biker,” and “In The Wind” magazines. Also, he has provided commercial photography services to various companies in the motorcycle industry. His renown in motorcycle lifestyle photography has resulted in his giving slide shows to numerous motorcycle clubs, churches, and civic groups. His most requested images are of the Vietnam veterans visiting the Vietnam Veterans Memorial during “Rolling Thunder” events.
In his artist’s statement, Johnson says: “My ’Nam Era: Never Forgotten project is a Vietnam veterans’ photographic tribute I started in 1997 at The Wall, showing us freedom is not free and should never be taken for granted. My early Sunday morning walks into the depth and quietness of The Wall let me digitally capture Vietnam veterans visiting names — names that represent the real human cost of freedom, showing us the names of young American boys and girls who grew up way too fast, fighting a war on foreign soils to sacrifice their own lives fighting for American freedom in foreign lands that some say God forgot: Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. These digital images show friends and family members touching loved ones’ names on The Wall, while getting a rubbing of a name so they can remember, honor and keep their loved one’s memory alive and remind us that we still have POW-MIAs in Vietnam.
“There are unforgettable images that are still in my mind because I had to make a decision when to let an award-winning photo go because a Vietnam veteran’s personal privacy was much more important than a picture. Visitors are welcome to touch these prints and read the patches on these veterans’ vests and hats that express bikers', civilians' and veterans' personal feelings in each print. I encourage everyone to take as much time needed to view and understand the meanings of each print in this exhibit.
“And remember to thank a veteran for your freedom.”
West Main Artists Co-op is one of Spartanburg’s leading nonprofit arts agency. It is a membership-based venue with more than 50 members, about 30 artists’ studios, three galleries, a printery, a ceramics studio, and the largest collection of for-sale and locally made art in the county.
“I am looking forward to exhibiting my ’Nam Era: Never Forgotten collection at West Main Artists Co-op,” Johnson said. “I visited WMAC for the opening celebration and have been both interested and positive since day-one of its opportunity to share creative work with the Spartanburg community. The atmosphere and life of WMAC are hopefully becoming a foundation of Spartanburg’s artistic growth.”
For more information about West Main Artists Co-op, please visit online: WestMainArtists.org.
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