Michael Colaneri: Photo by Ralph Stewart
Michael Colaneri holds a 40-year-old point-and-shoot camera he used while in Vietnam. Photo by Ralph Stewart

Images of Vietnam, memories of an era

By Jacqueline Sexton - March 30, 2006

An exhibition of photographs of Vietnam, taken by Michael Colaneri more than four decades ago, will open this Saturday, April 1 at the Chilmark Public Library.

Drafted into the United States Army at age 21, Mr. Colaneri was stationed in the Mekong Delta during the early years of the Vietnam war, from 1965 to 1966. During those years he took his camera everywhere he went, stopping to record whatever caught his interest in the unfamiliar country. "I pointed my camera instead of the M14," he says. "You can take only so much violence." The resulting pictures are a panorama of a beautiful country, shots that never made the television screens during the long conflict.

There's a sense of discovery in looking through these vintage photographs, which are individually mounted on a foam core and cemented with a spray adhesive that keeps them flat and easy to store.

"When I came home, I couldn't have cared less about dong anything with them. I was just a kid and I wanted to forget the war and get on with my life," he says. But his mother and, later, his wife carefully preserved the photos. Except for a small show at the Vineyard Haven Library in the 1980s, they have not been displayed for the public

Vietnam: Photo by Michael Colaneri
Michael Colaneri's Vietnam photographs are on display at the Chilmark Public Library. Photo by Michael Colaneri

There are dozens of portraits - a young girl kneeling in the dust at some task; a handsome woman, looking down with hauteur, her pose reminiscent of a John Singer Sargent portrait ("She was part French," says Mr. Colaneri.); a tall farmer, slightly out of focus, looking straight at the camera. "At first I was upset that it was out of focus, but then I decided I liked it that way because it gave movement to the picture," he says.

But all these people wear amiable expressions, even smiles. Smiles from the enemy? "I like people," Mr. Colaneri says simply. He waves an arm, encompassing the universe, "We're all one family."

Neither digital cameras nor auto-focus on conventional 35 mm cameras had appeared back in the 1960s, so Mike's equipment required considerable input from the photographer. The depth, the richness of the colors and the spatial relationships of his subjects all belie his assertion, "I'm just an amateur photographer." The photos all reveal extraordinary artistic vision and technical skill.

The viewer can almost hear the wind snapping the long white uniforms of a bevy of schoolgirls hurrying across a neatly manicured campus on their way to school. A sunny landscape with water buffalo depicts the same peace and tranquility as a painting of a Vineyard pond in summer. One world. One family.

But the war is part of the scene too - the bullet-ridden windshield seen from inside one of the river boats; the darkly ominous shape of a helicopter hovering low over a sunlit meadow.

Mike Colaneri has had a lifelong passion for photography. As a teenager growing up in Vineyard Haven, he took a photography course at the adult education center on Brattle St. in Cambridge. "I have always felt I have never taken enough pictures," he says. "Looking back, I ask myself 'Why didn't I take more shots that day?'" As for Vietnam, "That I was capturing history one frame at a time was something I only appreciated later."

Like any true aficionado, Mr. Colaneri waxes eloquent on his subject. "The camera (he used in Vietnam) was a Pentax I bought at the PX in Saigon in 1965. I 'boxed' the shots, using a hand-held meter at times; other times I would just take the pictures by luck, calculating the exposures in my head, then opening the f-stop by one or two, then closing it down by one or two stops, taking a minimum of four shots per picture. Often, I just shot f16 @60 to 125."

He has encouraged young people to take up photography, "to find the beauty, fun, and fascination in photography and the real joy in stopping to record the moment for others and yourself to ponder over the years, long after the picture was taken. My advice to any young person interested in taking pictures is to learn it as an art, learn it well and keep doing it your whole life. I promise you won't be disappointed."

Mr. Colaneri is of course still taking pictures, and three years ago bought a digital point-and-shoot. "I've had a lot of fun with it, especially as I have a number of flash cards - all the 'film' I will need ever."

Mr. Colaneri lives in West Tisbury with his wife, Karen.

The show will be up for the month of April and can be seen during regular library hours.

Jacqueline Sexton is The Times Chilmark columnist.