In suburban Boston, there is a military base unlike all others. It’s not a command center for troop deployment or training. Artillery detonations don’t happen there. But the Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC), whose mandate is to engineer and outfit American soldiers with the “best equipment in the world,” serves a vital operational role in the modern military. From mildew-resistant socks to bulletproof underwear and advancements in MRE and camouflage design, the labs and testing facilities at Natick have been at the center of innovation for the postwar revolution in U.S. military gear since 1953. It’s a role which can be traced back to the American Revolution and the establishment of the Quartermaster Corps in 1775, an Army logistics branch whose research facilities were eventually consolidated into the current Massachusetts site. Think of the NSSC as your neighborhood army surplus store—but with all the coolest gear before it becomes obsolete. Like a real-life Q Division for the American warfighter.
With the attention to detail that goes into maintaining food, clothes, and shelter for over a million enlisted members of the armed forces, it’s not surprising the NSSC would also keep meticulous records, including an extensive image collection cataloguing the center’s rigorous, at times bizarre testing and research activities. Shot on large format film, images from the Natick Soldier Systems Center Photographic Collection are as detailed as they are exacting. They also reveal an artistry that exceeds the typical record-keeping imagery of large institutional bureaucracies. Disarming portraits of servicemen modeling new headgear or strangely sculptural studies of modular tents are meant as reference points for the continued job of making the military more efficient and effective. But much of the collection shows a visionary approach to documentation, which may be explained by the presumed atmosphere of heightened experimentation at Natick. After all, science and art share an intrinsic relationship in the creative imagination—an overlap that explains why many of these photos still read as startlingly contemporary.