Since 1999, Nick Del Calzo has photographed recipients of the Medal of Honor, the highest military decoration awarded to U.S. military service members. The photographs, made around the country, are collected in Medal of Honor: Portraits of Valor Beyond the Call of Duty, a book of portraits and profiles by Peter Collier, published by Artisan and now in its updated fourth edition, featuring 12 new recipients of the medal.
Del Calzo’s dramatically lit black and white images picture his subjects in and out of uniform, at home and among the statues and monuments that are “our nations most revered symbols of freedom,” Del Calzo tells PDN by email. As he writes, the project presented the “ultimate challenge for a photographer: Create 156 compelling portraits of our nation’s most esteemed heroes—without a duplicate composition!” Conceived from the start as a book, Del Calzo worked with support from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society and Foundation. “Because the project was a collaborative effort with the Society and Foundation, I was often well received by the recipients,” Del Calzo says. He describes some of the the challenges of the project, which included avoiding National Park Service Rangers, who wouldn’t allow him to use a tripod at the Korean War Memorial where he planned to photograph Hector A. Cafferata, Jr.; quickly finding and recruiting two Vietnam vets to appear with Don “Doc” Ballard, who served in the Navy during the Vietnam War and asked to be photographed with other vets; and picturing George C. Lang in front of a copper replica of Statue of Liberty in the monument’s small museum, after other backgrounds didn’t work out. Lang told to Del Calzo that despite living in the region for nearly six decades, this was his first visit to the site. “Together, we shed tears,” Del Calzo recalls. “It is a poignant moment I will never forget.” In an edited email interview, Del Calzo tells PDN about his interest and approach to the long-running project.
PDN: What was your personal attraction to the project?
Nick Del Calzo: The project is a tribute to my three brothers who served in WWII. My fourth brother failed his physical three times. Otherwise, I would have four brothers in the service….I sought to honor my three brothers as well as all those who, by choice or by chance, left our shores to fight for freedom. I believe that when you honor one you honor all who served our country, and the Medal of Honor recipients provided a voice to achieve that goal.
PDN: Had the profiles been written by the time you made the photographs, and did the stories influence how you photographed?
NDC: Their accolades on the battlefield are part of public record; therefore I had a brief understanding of what they had accomplished. However, my vision was to create many of the photographs among our nation’s most revered symbols of freedom. Only in a couple of instances did a recipient specifically request his portrait to be created in a specific location. (On a ship, next to the Einstein Monument, etc.)
PDN: How long do you spend with a subject, and how do you decide where to photograph them?
NDC: It varied depending on the location or studio setting. Nearly all were done on location, either in their home, at a memorial or a personally relevant location. I intentionally did not ask them about their combat experience, primarily because I did not know how emotionally sensitive that topic would be with the individual. Rather, I attempted to assure each individual that I wanted to create something special for them. In all cases these honorees were gracious and cooperative.
PDN: What kinds of equipment do you use?
NDC: Nearly all the images were shot with a Hasselblad 500C using Kodak T-MAX100 120 film. However, in the past five years I have been using a Leica M240. I have been using Dynalite strobes and Speedlights on all the images.
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