This Week in Photography Books: Ed Eckstein

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My son just saw “Airplane” for the first time. (Thanks, Dad.)

He’s turning 10, so I guess he was ready. I certainly remember watching it as a kid, laughing so hard that my stomach hurt. But that was back when the movie was fresh, and the references made sense.

Not surprisingly, as it’s 2017, Theo felt uncomfortable with the “jive turkey” scenes, as what was acceptable in 1980 is considered highly racist today.

He also didn’t know what to make of the Hare Krishna’s. I mean, how do you explain that to the Internet generation? It’s not like we’ve got bald, dancing hippies at airports anymore.

(Instead, we have bomb-sniffing dogs, and lots of smelly bare feet.)

In a weird way, I miss some elements of the monoculture: the pop references, and films, that everyone got.

Where’s the Beef.
Joe Isuzu.
Eddie Murphy doing Gumby.

The comedic movies from the 70’s and 80’s, in particular, stand out as cultural icons that have not really been replaced. (Well, I guess Alec Baldwin doing Trump comes close.)

If you ask anyone between 30-50 about the funniest movie of all time, the odds are they’re going to say something with Bill Murray in it.

“Caddyshack,” most likely.

The fact it had peak-funny Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, and Rodney Dangerfield makes it hard to pick anything else. But I could just as easily say that about “Stripes.”

It featured peak-funny Bill Murray, Harold Ramis, and John Candy, with a scary/funny performance by Warren Oates to boot. (How sad is it that three of those guys are dead now?)

“Stripes” gets pushed down the list a bit, for many, because it was really two movies in one. The first part, with all the classic lines, (“You call me Francis, I’ll kill ya,”) was set in basic training.

Show me something funnier than John Candy mud-wrestling.
I dare you.

But the second part, which morphed into an Anti-Soviet action movie, is a bit harder to defend. Completely different tone, and seeing Warren Oates become a good guy was hard for my young brain to process. (Ah, such a simpler time, the 20th Century. Our good guys were good, our bad guys were bad, and it was OK to chant “USA” without irony.)

Seriously, I think my entire understanding of basic training comes from “Stripes,” and I guess that says a lot about me. I don’t have any family members in the military, I never considered joining up, and I was born just after the end of the draft.

For me, “The Draft” means 20 hours of ESPN each Spring, watching heavily-made-up former football players dissecting clips of college footballers whose names they can barely pronounce. (Yet still I watch…)

It’s hard for most people to relate to a world in which the government could force you to fight, and often die, no matter what you thought about the situation. We are so far removed from that time, it’s hard to imagine a world in which that many Americans had skin in the game.

These days, a small minority of American families do the heavy lifting for all of us. And, most of the time, it’s lower income kids, from rural areas lacking job opportunities, that end up dying for our “freedom.” (Yes, I’m putting quotes around the word, b/c with Trump around, it seems like a much shakier proposition.)

Thankfully, (and not unexpectedly, if you know this column,) a photo book turned up in the mail the other day that puts this issue before our eyes, straight outta the early 70’s.

“Grunts: The Last US Draft, 1972” is a new book by Ed Eckstein, published by Schiffer Publishing in Pennsylvania, and it provides a glimpse into the last draft class in American History. (This time I don’t mean the NFL.)

This photo book shows us a set of pictures that Ed Eckstein made in 1972, when he embedded with a group of draftees, and followed them from Philly down to basic training in South Carolina. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t get “Stripes” out of my head, when I was looking at this book. (Yes, I’m a weirdo.)

But the thing about a documentary photo project is that it shows us the unvarnished situation, in clean black and white, and eventually, I was able to see these young men as people, rather than stand in’s for John Winger and crew.

While this book gives us something we otherwise wouldn’t get to see, (a surefire way to get reviewed,) I wouldn’t say the pictures are dynamite. They’re good, and in some cases very good, but in general, I don’t think they’re terribly visceral or emotion-grabbing.

Rather, they feel historical to me.
And important, as such.

There are little bits of humor, like the little tags on the uniforms, made “For Soldiers of Distinction.”

How great is that?

Even better is the promotional poster, featuring Richard Nixon, that promises “Equal Employment Opportunity” from the Federal Government.

Let that sink in for a moment.

In one little advertisement, Richard Nixon is presented as less of a racist/sexist than our current President. Nixon, the past poster-child for how to be a terrible President, in retrospect looks like a balanced statesman compared to our current Asshole-in-Chief.

Then we get a signs that says, “When you fire think “BRAS”: Breathe/Relax/Aim/Squeeze.” No f-ing way something like that passes muster in 2017. Misogyny may still be alive and well, but with a now-partially-female military, tacky puns like that would never cut it.

And how about the guy in full karate-chop mode? How much you want to bet he’s making a Bruce Lee-esque karate-chop cry? Hiiiii-yah!

It’s true I’m making light of a situation that demands a bit more respect. It’s likely that some of the guys in this book went on to die in Vietnam.

Nothing funny about that.

But that’s kind of my point. As the military burden shifted from almost-all-of-us to a select demographic in this country, the reality of War, and its costs, has become buffeted, to a dangerous degree.

Which is why I’m glad Ed Eckstein sent this book along to remind us, in this time of “Rocket Man,” that none of this is a laughing matter.

Bottom Line: Vintage, black and white documents of the last draft class

To Purchase “Grunts,” click here

If you’d like to submit a book for review, please email me at jonathanblaustein@gmail.com

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 2 Comments On This Article.

  1. Two things: all photography is ultimately (as well as intrinsically) historical in nature, all good photography (as this) stands the test of time.

    What particularly stands out for me at this particular time (in the midst of watching the Viet Nam doc by Ken Burns) are all the M-16’s being held by those grunts, which would eventually jam and cost them their lives…

  2. As someone who grew up as a teenager loving Caddyshack, Stripes, SNL, etc. I love the intro to this post. It’s a perfect preamble to the book and photos.

    Kudos!