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A Record of His Passing

Scott Lucas | May 20, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

"It was a record of my passing. If I were to be killed, I wanted something that my son could have," says Ed Drew.

Though he's one semester away from a BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Albany resident is no ordinary art student. After six years as a jet engine mechanic for the United States Air Force, he joined the California Air National Guard as an aerial gunner and served in the Helmand province of Afghanistan last year. While there, he produced what he believes are the first tintypes made in a combat zone since the Civil War. (Check out some of his images in the slideshow above, and see more on his site.)

It wasn't an easy project. "I had a big bag with me that I put all of my chemicals and equipment in," he says, "and I set up a dark room in our tent with a curtain. I couldn't stand up, so I'd be on my knees mixing chemicals and distilling the drinking water they gave us."

The result was a stunning photographic essay of the men and women Drew served with. It brought him national attention and professional representation at the Robert Koch Gallery in San Francisco. But he didn't want to simply rest on his laurels.

"When I came home I was really depressed," he says. "But I finally decided I wanted to use these tintypes to help people." His current project is beginning to bear fruits.

Drew has been making tintypes at the Garden Project, which teaches sustainable agriculture to at-risk youth. (Check out the slideshow above for some of that work.) Drew, who himself is Puerto Rican and black, says that part of what attracted him to this work is to that it allowed him to reflect on the American experience with race. "Some people think that we live in a post-racial America," he says. "Most black people don't think that's true."

Update: Drew wrote in to add: "In the tintype portraits of African Americans what I'm trying to understand is how far have we come? Have we reached a post racial America? When I ask, most say we're not there. But then still most are in agreement that things are getting better. The portraits then confront you with a person, an idea, a past and ask the question again. There is no statement that needs to be made verbally, it's personal."

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