‘Freep’ Book Captures Human Images of War

By: Dave Astor

Portraits of War may not be the end of the story for Detroit Free Press artist Richard Johnson.

The Portraits book — published Tuesday by the Free Press — features Johnson’s drawings and Jeff Seidel’s articles from their three months in and around Iraq earlier this year.

Johnson told E&P Online he may return to Iraq this fall with a different Free Press writer — Nancy Youssef, who speaks Arabic. If that happens, the two will try to do more portraits of everyday Iraqis than Johnson and Seidel were able to do, while continuing to sketch U.S. soldiers still in Iraq.

The new 300-page book is full of the evocative stories and illustrations that ran in the Free Press and many other papers via Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. Johnson and Seidel’s work brought a strong positive response from readers — more than 600 e-mails, plus numerous postal letters and phone calls. One reason for this huge reaction was the unusual use of drawings rather than photos as the Johnson-Seidel team humanized the war experience by focusing on individuals. Also, the U.S. soldiers Johnson drew were from throughout the country, not just Detroit and Michigan.

Johnson said art can evoke stronger emotions than photos for several reasons. “Drawing allows you to filter out things,” he said, while enabling the artist to put “intense detail” in the most important areas of a picture. Johnson added: “With a photo, you’re looking at 1/100th of a second. With a drawing, I was with the person, looking them in the eyes. We had some history. It is a much more intimate portrait.”

The artist drew his subjects from life, from photos, and from memory — depending on how much time he had, whether the Marine unit he and Seidel embedded with were under fire, etc. Johnson worked in black and white because he felt it gave “more weight” to the topic.

Among the scenes Johnson remembered the most was one of two Marines, both bleeding from shrapnel wounds, lying on stretchers in the sun as medics treated more seriously injured people. Johnson drew the Marines at the moment when they punched each other’s hands for encouragement.

Johnson, 37, is a native of Scotland who joined the Free Press in 2000. He’s a strong admirer of famed combat artist Howard Brodie, and was also influenced as an illustrator by his grandfather, Herbert William Bingham.

The full title of the collection (http://www.freep.com/bookstore) is Portraits of War: The people of the Iraq war, one sketch at a time. It includes an introduction by Joseph L. Galloway, senior military correspondent for Knight Ridder, who wrote: “The tradition of Howard Brodie and Bill Mauldin, and of Winslow Homer’s stunning Civil War art for Harper’s Weekly, is alive and well and safe in the drawings of Richard Johnson and the words of Jeff Seidel.”

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