Library of Congress exhibit, ‘Cleared Hot,’ opens in Ocala


In this image called “Question Mark,” combat-bound Air Force troops exercise in the face of an approaching storm. The photo is from the Library of Congress exhibit “Cleared Hot,” which opens today at the Webber Center Gallery at the College of Central Florida. (Courtesy of Nicholas Price)

Published: Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 3, 2012 at 2:47 p.m.

British-born photographer Nicholas Price knew he would run into the brave, the gung ho, the still-angry when he became a fixture at two U.S. Air Force bases.

Facts

‘Cleared Hot’

What: Library of Congress photo exhibit documenting 18 months at two U.S. Air Forces bases in Nevada.
Where: Webber Center Gallery at the College of Central Florida, 3001 SW College Road (north end of the campus), Ocala
When: Opens today and runs through Feb. 3. Gallery is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays though Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Opening reception: 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Jan. 12 at the gallery
Information: 873-5809

For 18 months in 2005-2007, Price took full advantage of full access in Nevada, documenting operations, training exercises and Americans on the cusp of combat. Sept. 11, 2001, was still on many minds. The terrorist attacks put many people on the business end of Price’s lens. He expected that. But, certainly, there were elements in this complex stew of dedication, fear, fearlessness, honor and personal narratives the New York City-based photographer did not expect.

“The interesting thing is I met a new side of the Air Force that has not been documented,” Price said last week from Ocala’s Webber Center Gallery, where his exhibit opens today. “They had a great deal of ground forces employed in the conflicts of recent. Everyone assumes helicopters, planes and bombs; they don’t realize a lot of these kids joining up were on these convoy-support duties, which probably were the most risky operations in terms of the war,” he said.

The photo collection is called “Cleared Hot,” which is a military term meaning the authorization to engage a target or complete an action. Now owned and toured by the Library of Congress, it features 60 black and white prints shot with film cameras and carefully culled from thousands of images examined via darkroom-produced contact sheets.

The edited number of photos is significant, as the exhibit celebrated the Air Force’s 60th anniversary.

“When I approached this project, I approached it from the ground up. I met everybody from the men and women who were joining that day right through to the seasoned, four-star general. So I had a very good understanding of how it was working,” Price said.

Price calls himself a project photographer, a documentarian of sorts, who delves deep into his subject matter. One of his last projects was on homeless veterans.

For “Cleared Hot,” his project wrapped around the military in general — “the reason to serve, the commitment to serve and, I suppose, just trying to understand the mindsets of military and how everything worked,” he said.

“Originally, I wanted to show how (the Air Force) got planes into the air. When people see an F-16 flying, they just assume it reversed out of the garage and took off,” he said, laughing. “There are a lot of people who do a lot on the ground who are forgotten. You see the flying colors and everything else underneath that, and it’s very much dismissed. There’s a lot of incredible support, and people don’t acknowledge that.”

And those people — on the ground and in the air — are the heart of “Cleared Hot.” The exhibit is as human as it is mechanical. And in the shadow of 9/11, there was a powerful call of duty.

“A lot of the young people had made the commitment after 9/11 to decide they wanted to serve their country,” Price said. “Several of the ones I had met there had already been serving, they signed up fairly soon after 9/11 and they were already engaged in a four-or-five year career in the military.

“I suppose the most disturbing thing was ... (there were) so many young people enlisted that were being sent out to do some of the worst parts of dealing with a conflict or war situation. At one time, I had the unenviable position of knowing 360 faces that were just being deployed out onto these kinds of things.”

One of the most powerful images — called “Question Mark” — shows a night training exercise with a storm brewing in front of the troops. Many were deployed to a combat zone about two weeks later.

“So when you see the news,” Price added, “it has a new meaning to you, you know, when you see someone is being killed or injured in action.”

The nature of the exhibit likely will be a substantial draw in this area, noted Michele Faulconer, gallery coordinator for Visual and Performing Arts at the College of Central Florida. The photographs offer artistic shades in terms of composition and the photographer’s eye, she said, but more important is the tribute, perspective and insight they provide, not just on the Air Force, but on all military personnel.

Price will remain in Ocala during the run of the exhibit, which has toured the country and already has spent much time in veteran-heavy Florida. He is involved in the installation and enjoys hearing from veterans as they view “Cleared Hot.”

“The biggest compliment, the one that shows I achieved my objective, is they say to me ‘Thank you for showing the people who are not normally seen,’” he said. “You see these guys who say, ‘Well, I served for 30 years in that arena, and nobody ever noticed me before.’”

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