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Whiz-bang, high-tech wizardry can be fun, and diverting.

But in museum shows, as in life, simple is often best.

That’s amply proven by a current offering at the National Museum of the Marine Corps that etches images of today’s veterans and active-duty service members in your mind.

“War and Peace,” a temporary exhibition in a corridor of the museum’s second deck, arrests the eye with a succession of paired portraits of military personnel in uniform and casual garb.

Gaze into the eyes of photographer Melissa Cacciola’s subjects, and you’ll never think of the military as a monolithic entity again.

Her works remind us of the incredible diversity of the American armed forces, and the very real sacrifices made by those who defend their country.

“What personally touches me about the photos is that you can look into those faces and get such a broad range of emotions and depth,” museum director Lin Ezell said in an interview Tuesday. “I was blown away by the work—and am pretty happy with visitors’ reaction to it.”

Each portrait is unique, created with the same exacting and time-consuming photo-chemical process used by Mathew Brady, the famed chronicler of the Civil War (who set out to document the conflict during the Battle of Manassas in 1861).

Called “tintypes” by 19th-century writers for the thin iron plates on which they were printed, these images revolutionized photography and made it an affordable mass medium.

“I fell in love with tintyping during a class in historic preservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Cacciola, a freelance paintings conservator who lives in New York. “We were studying tintype portraits from the Civil War—they were so powerful and haunting, I couldn’t stop thinking about them.”

She notes in the exhibit that countless Civil War soldiers had tintypes made for their families and sweethearts. Flexible and less prone to breakage than a photo made on a glass plate, a tintype could be mailed home to a loved one or put in a gutta-percha case and kept in a uniform pocket.

Each image must be printed in reverse, a fact noticed by those who peer at Cacciola’s prints and see that a service insignia is backward. Otherwise, the technique is unobtrusive, though these images have greater clarity and tonal range than we’re accustomed to in the age of Instagram.

Each portrait stands on its own merits. But their pairing may prompt you to ponder individuality and the nature of military service. Seen side by side, an airman in dress blues becomes the guy who grooves on Guns N’ Roses: Witness his T–shirt.

The installation showcases 16 men and women from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard and Marines.

Each is identified only by first name, but the labels feature first-person quotes from the portrait sessions about the person and his experiences in the military, starting with basics such as occupational specialty, dates of service and duty stations. One person couldn’t make a statement due to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“Melissa came to us a couple of years ago with this idea, saying she wanted this show to début where there would be an audience that cared about the people in it, and thought we would be a good place for that,” Ezell recalled. “… I was pleased as a museum director to encourage her, and am delighted that we have this show.”

Cacciola said that, for her, “being able to show ‘War and Peace’ at NMMC was important because of the museum’s understanding of the military and its history, as well as the museum’s commitment to both veterans and active-duty military.”

Initially, finding subjects was difficult for the artist, who said she began the project without connections or contacts in the services.

“It really wasn’t until I made contact with two Marines that things began to move forward,” said Cacciola said, who credited the Coast Guard, Navy, Army and the Wounded Warrior Project for their full support.

“So many people trusted me, without knowing me or about my work,” she said. “I could not have told their story otherwise.”

Here, you’ll meet an infantry rifleman, a chef, a fuel carrier, an explosives specialist, a flight officer and others arrayed in 26 portraits on a curving wall between the museum’s eateries and an elevator and stair.

“Some people come to the second deck for the view. Others come up there for chow, and are making their way down that hall,” Ezell notes. “It’s interesting to see people starting to charge down the hallway but, instead, their attention gets distracted by what’s on the wall. They start reading.”

The director said that what strikes her most about seeing people interact with the exhibition is their silence.

“They seem to get lost in the faces. That speaks to the strength of the portraiture,” she said. “Folks don’t seem to chitchat much among one another. Instead, they’re having a one-on-one with the portraits. It’s a very personal experience.”

Clint Schemmer: 540/374-5424


What: “War and Peace,” tintype portraits by Melissa Cacciola

Where: National Museum of the Marine Corps, 8900 Jefferson Davis Highway, Triangle

Cost: Free

When: Through Dec. 1. Open 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily

Info: 703/784-6107;