You only get one shot at life.
Whether things turn out exactly as you imagined them or they are riddled with flaws, you have no choice but to accept the outcome.
This is the message conveyed through the deployed works of Staff Sgt. Ed Drew, California Air National Guard, 129th Rescue Squadron aerial gunner who frequents Travis for services and support.
Drew is tall and athletically built. As an aerial gunner, he is who you would expect to see hustling toward a running helicopter as his crew is called out on a mission.
But there is another side to him that his unit was able to see on his deployment.
He revived the fine art of tintype photography in a war zone, something that hasn’t been done since the Civil War.
Tintype photos are created by transferring an image directly onto a sheet of metal using a balance of chemicals and light exposure. Because of this, Drew must work with the image as he captured it – he has no opportunity to manipulate it later with digital software or darkroom trickery.
“The perfection is in the imperfections,” Drew said. “A tintype photo creates an image that is very timeless and humanistic. It is very much about the human interaction between me and the subject.”
The science behind the process pales in comparison to Drew’s application of it as an artist.
Drew is an art major at the San Francisco Art Institute. When he talks about photography, his passion in the subject is hardly contained.
“When I set out to create these photos, I didn’t do it for school credits or anything like that,” he said. “I am an artist. I need to create.”
Drew’s dedication to his craft is immense. Just his living quarters tells of his zeal. His home is modest, yet tidy with a beautiful view of the bay. The only thing in his room is a mattress on the floor with a stack of photography books next to it, a computer, a portable darkroom setup and thousands upon thousands of dollars of photo equipment. One doesn’t have to ask many questions to see where the inhabitant’s true passion lies.
He describes his tintype photos with great enthusiasm and points out subtle particulars one wouldn’t ordinarily catch.
A common theme he drives home is that everything is connected. The people in his photos are not subjects, they are personal connections. The weapon in the Airman’s hand is a part of who he is. The pose a pilot took is the same pose his great-great grandfather once took. The misplaced flag patch on a pilot’s flight suit illustrates the frantic urgency of a helicopter rescue unit. It’s all connected.
“These portraits are people that I know and made a relationship with,” he said. “The process really caused me to interact with the subjects so I could honor them and show who they are to me. This is how I can show the rescue community and the people I work with to the world.”
The technique of making tintype portraits in itself is not overly complicated, but when the various and multiple challenges of being deployed are stacked on top of it, it becomes obvious why Drew was suited for the task.
Drew had to carefully mitigate how much space he could use to carry his photo equipment, chemicals and his gear he would need for the deployment. Obtaining the proper chemicals was costly and difficult, so he had to carefully ration them out to last. The air was hot and dry, but certain steps of the developmental process required the metal plates to remain wet, so he would have to sprint from the shooting location to where his makeshift darkroom was constructed inside a pelican case.
Sometimes a scramble call would come in the middle of him developing a photo and it would force Drew to abandon the image completely. Sometimes troops simply did not want their photo taken, but Drew would invest the time to win them over and they would comply.
“I knew I wanted to pursue a fine art project when I deployed,” Drew said. “I chose this medium because the process is very involved and the final product is permanent. There is no processing lab or Photoshop to fix a problem.”
Drew has received international acclaim for his work. Photos of his tintypes have appeared in numerous publications and news outlets. For more information go to www.eddrew.com.