Don Netzer’s color photographic series addresses gun violence in the United States. I first saw a few works from this series in a group exhibition at PDNB Gallery in Dallas this past spring. The experience of viewing an entire room full of large-scale portraits of bullets, or more specifically gun cartridges, stopped me in my tracks. Photographed against a seductive black background with dramatic lighting, the images emphasize the design of the bullet as a killing modus operandi, which is both confounding and unsettling. Netzer shoots the cartridges from the same perspective as one would a monument or public sculpture, elevating their status and importance. From afar, the cartridges look similar, with the exception of the smaller 9mm. Upon closer inspection, you can see the subtle differentiations in the surfaces, including scratches, stains, and metal color — all of which would be unrecognizable to the naked eye.
Netzer uses scale as a visual tactic to draw in the viewer. This is an effective strategy to avoid a quick stroll-by in the gallery. When I asked the photographer about how scale functions in his compositions, he responded that he wanted the cartridges to be in the viewer’s face, overwhelming them. In the 38 x 29-inch prints, the subjects looked to me like small war missiles.
At the bottom of each portrait is a small area of text with information about each shooting the bullet is associated with, including location, date, ammunition type, and number of people killed. Netzer includes some historical shootings, like John F. Kennedy’s assassination at the Dallas Book Depository, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as well as more recent shootings that have become part of our communal lexicon like Columbine, Uvalde, Sandy Hook, the Pulse Night Club, and the Allen Outlets (which occurred two months ago, not far from where I live in Frisco). Including the historical shootings provides context to the cyclical and ongoing nature of gun violence. I also noted that half of the images referred specifically to shootings in Texas.
On the gallery’s front desk, there is a handout called the Anatomy of a Firearm Cartridge. I asked gallery owner Missy Finger about it and she told me that it serves as an educational tool, so that visitors can familiarize themselves with proper terminology in understanding how ammunition works. The schematic is intriguing as a companion piece to the photographs; Netzer’s images are starkly beautiful, but devoid of emotion. Combined with the schematic, they provide a framework for discourse about shootings and gun control.
I am not a gun owner, but my husband is. It’s very disconcerting to live in a state with such proliferation and accessibility of guns, especially as a teacher at a university campus, where students are allowed to carry in the classrooms. I don’t pretend to have a solution for the problem. I asked Netzer how he responds to the old adage “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” He stated, “It takes a person (a mind) to buy the equipment, load the equipment, have a state of mind to kill another person, drive to the location, and pull the trigger. It definitely takes one person to kill another.”
In thinking about the exhibition’s title, I drew many connections between beauty and violence, especially in the media, which glorifies violence as a form of entertainment. I recently watched John Wick: Chapter 4, which consisted of 2.5 hours of Keanu Reeves killing the “bad” people, which presumably the audience is meant to applaud. 94% of viewers liked the movie, per Rotten Tomatoes. Violence is marketed to consumers as seductive, and it sells.
I also asked Netzer what he hoped visitors would take away from the work: “It is my hope that the exhibition will remind the public that it is not the state or federal government that will enact laws to regulate firearms sales, but the public’s demand through voting that will demand the laws be changed.”
This is sobering work that needs to be seen. It serves as a catalyst for both deep reflection and discussion.
Don Netzer: The Lethal Beauty of Violence is on view at PDNB Gallery in Dallas through August 12, 2023.