The first time you walk through Geoffrey Clifford's near-perfect renderings of post-war Vietnam, don't read the labels. Take in the graphics, colors and spiritual beauty emanating from Vietnamese involved in everyday tasks. Make up your own short stories: The labels can wait until your second pass.
Vietnam: Journey of the Heart is on view in the mezzanine of the D. H. Hill Library at N.C. State, currently on loan from the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibit Service. The locale and timing of this show are especially appropriate for two reasons: The concise histories provided in the script are by N.C. State English professor John Balaban, and the exhibit helps those who favor peace take comfort in seeing how quickly certain aspects of Vietnam returned to normalcy.
Clifford's photography is lush with color and full of respect for the country he fought in as a 21-year-old helicopter pilot.
"From 1972 until the '80s, I was not paying attention to what was going on in Vietnam. Then I saw an article in 1985 about a group of veterans going back and it mentioned they had one opening," says Clifford in a phone interview. "I inquired and said that I was a photographer, and I made that trip. Most of the photographs taken by others on that trip were confiscated, but I shot transparencies and got 35 rolls back to the States."
Clifford's slides, and the work he has done in 15 successive trips, show the uncanny way the universe places patterns in all things: a duck-herder using a stick to guide a flock so closely banded that their heads form an M. C. Escher-style pattern; rice paddies laid out like calico in squares, rectangles and rhomboids, shot from helicopter height; two oxen, enough out of focus to blend into the far distant landscape, cut through the blur as they continue across a swamp.
Vietnam veteran Lawrence Williams of Raleigh, who served from 1968 to 1972 in the 82nd Airborne Division, saw many stories in Clifford's images.
"In this picture of the buses, it could be a place where homeless people now live," says Williams, referring to "Public buses in downtown Hanoi, 1985." "But the picturesque background and surrounding beauty can take your mind to a higher level."
Williams could also relate to the photos of Vietnamese hard at work in the rice paddies.
"After I got back from Vietnam, I worked in the pickle fields down near Mt. Olive," he says. "The farm labor in Vietnam is no different than right here. Our bosses took our money and bought everything for us, and if you wanted to leave with any of the little money you were paid, you had to sneak out of the camps at night. It was dangerous: If you got caught you could get your legs broken. When you see these photographs, you can imagine how the people live today."
Professor Balaban has spent his literary career documenting Vietnamese poetry, preserving their ancient calligraphy (Nom) and writing heartfelt memoirs about his time as a conscientious objector serving injured children during the war. His contribution to this exhibit offers viewers a studied history of the post-war country. On a label affixed next to the Hanoi buses photo, Balaban notes:
"These old buses, with their antique charm, are now parked and forgotten, as Vietnam modernizes its infrastructure and trades freely with the West. The United States lifted its trade embargo with Vietnam in 1994. A bilateral agreement, signed in 2000, further opened up trade between the United States and Vietnam."
Missing, however, is mention of the fact that many factory workers in Vietnam make 14 cents an hour, and that they are often the ones who assemble the plastic movie toys promoted in kids' meals at McDonalds and Burger King. It's easy to excuse the blinders, though, since keeping politics out of the placards educates us about current Vietnamese lifestyles the same way Clifford's photography does: with crisp details and a curious but unquestioning eye.
"I was not tempted to write poems about the photographs," Balaban says. "Geoffrey's photographs reflect the Vietnamese poetic traditions by presenting nature with only subtle references to any philosophical or social commentaries."
Technically gifted, Clifford shows the quiet satisfaction of heavy labor. He also has a photojournalist's ability to capture genuine feelings with telling, candid shots.
In "Street Scene, Ho Chi Minh City, 1992," Clifford uses his bulb setting to put graphic strands of color above antique parked cars from the '50s. What must be a green filter is used to make the photograph both an eye-fooling deception of perspective and a painterly image much like that of Frank Stella's photo of Andy Warhol.
Clifford's technical expertise at planning and executing his photographs has jolted many an art movement. "Ha Long Bay" shows the "Rising Dragon" of rocks with tiny boats plying the bay. It's exactly this ratio of nature to human endeavor that the Hudson School described as about 100 parts nature to one part human being. Had the photograph been painted, it would be described as impressionist, with its layers of horizon lines defined by darker, then lighter rock formations.
"In December, I returned and took over 250 letters I had written to my parents and fiancee during the war," Clifford says. "I was stupid then, and knew very little about what was going on in the war. I remembered the cartoon scene leaving Vietnam in 1972. It was exciting, but I was much more excited about returning to learn about the country in 1985."
Once you've completed your initial tour, take a second pass to read the labels. This exercise catches you up on the exhibit's current vitality and gives you hope that any oppressed country can once again return to peace.
Vietnam: Journey of the Heart, Photographs by Geoffrey Clifford, 1985-2000, will be on view at D.H. Hill Library through March 6. Clifford and Balaban will be on hand for the lecture "Vietnam: Journey of the Heart" on Thursday, Feb. 17 at 4 p.m. in the library's assembly room. 2205 Hillsborough St., Raleigh. 515-7188 for museum hours and exhibit information.