Anne Tucker for Will Michels
|A woman looking at Will Michels’ photographs in his project Iwo Jima + 60 (from the series Living History) asked, “Are you sure these weren’t taken during World War II?” They have the convincing feel of the period, but if one looks closely, haircuts are recent and trim, fingernails are clean, and beards are only a day old. These are not battle weary men. These pictures were taken in Doss, Texas, during a reenactment of the historic battle for Iwo Jima to mark its 60th anniversary, not a rocky Japanese island. Michels brought to the battle’s stage a deep knowledge of World War II in general and of Iwo Jima specifically, as well as years of studying photographs of the war. After graduating from Pratt Institute with a degree in architecture, he became the project architect in charge of restoring the Battleship TEXAS. That job led to his photographing and interviewing over 250 veterans of the USS TEXAS, which is the only surviving warship that served as part of both the D Day armada and the Pacific campaigns. The ship’s restorations were based on physical evidence, detailed oral accounts, photographs and historic records. He found himself asking veterans seemingly trivial questions that became vital to the project: What socks did they wear in World War II? Where were their bunks? Where did the black mess hands sleep? What were their battle stations? Their answers helped guide the restoration of the ship to her last major campaign, the Pacific.
Iwo Jima + 60 involved over 320 living history volunteers, forty of whom flew directly from Japan. When participating in the reenactment as a photographer, Michels brought that same attention to detail. He photographed from dirt level as a war correspondent would have when bullets and mortars were flying. The advance men in Forward Assault No. 7 are backlight against the smoky sky. Dead soldiers are scattered haphazardly on the battlefield. Once conflict ceases, men drop in the nearest foxhole or indentation to rest. Studying photographs for the restoration led to an ongoing study of war photography that has continued long after leaving the battleship and working as a teacher at the Glassell School at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. The pictures are also influenced by his exceptional memory for the photographs he has seen, in books, in exhibitions, and on eBay, where World War II press photographs sell for a wide range depending more on the battle than on the photographer.
Since completing this series, Michels has turned again to making portraits. These are a continuation in his studying men and asking himself about the good and the evil in them, where might lie untested courage, or in one proven case, tested courage? These pictures go further back to Roman warriors and statesmen whose marble busts Michels admired during an extended stay in Rome. His knowledge and love of art history and the history of war continue to merge, but always with an eye for contemporary life and imagery.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston