Sunday, December 12, 2010

Explaining Phil Makanna to First-Graders

My son's first-grade class has a unit called "The Mystery Reader" in which, each week, one of the kids' parents comes to class to talk about reading and books. Last Friday was my turn. Our assignment was to read a children's book to the kids, but also to do a show-and-tell about the types of things we read for work and for pleasure, and make the point that reading is not just something you have to do in school but a fun and valuable thing later in life. I brought in some of the books and other things I've written and read as an attorney, which of course caused a few eyes to glaze over, but as part of the reading-for-pleasure part, I used Phil Makanna's first (1979) Ghosts book of World War II airplane photographs.

The kids and their teacher liked Makanna's photos a lot. The ones containing explosions especially impressed some of the boys.

My idea was not really to talk about airplanes or photography as such, but more to discuss the idea of "inspiration" and how a single book can inspire you to do things and strive to be better at them. It involved a personal story which I'll repeat here, more or less as I told it to the first-graders.

I had been interested in airplanes, especially old ones, since I was a first-grader's age. I built models, drew pictures, read airplane books and magazines of all kinds. I had no interest in cameras or photography.

One summer in 1980 when I was not too much older than the first-graders, I came across Makanna's first Ghosts. It made a huge impression. It was not the type of book I normally would buy on my modest allowance. I was focused on books by people like Bill Gunston, full of specifications and cutaway drawings and color profiles. This was just a few dozen simply presented photographs. But what photos! Many of them had a surreal quality that was different than any way that I had looked at airplanes before. I made two decisions right away. First, I had to buy the book. Second, I had to do this stuff myself. I started pestering my parents for a camera, and soon was shooting airplanes every chance I got, a pursuit that has continued well into what passes for my adulthood.

Shooting airplanes, often early in the morning on quiet airports and fields, gave me some of my most enjoyable and rewarding experiences over the years. I have met fascinating people and have been invited to snoop around some wonderful machines. I've branched into photography of other subjects as well. It's been my most important creative outlet, and every now and then I come up with an image that gives me some satisfaction. This is how I explained "inspiration" to the first-graders: seeing something done so well, whether it's Derek Jeter playing baseball, Eric Carle illustrating children's books, or a President leading people, that it makes you think, Gee, I want to do something like that, that well. The kids did an art unit inspired by Eric Carle recently and got the message.

Finally I told the kids how, early one morning 25 years after first being inspired by Makanna's books to take up this pastime, I was shooting planes in the quiet sunrise before an airshow when I bumped into a guy who turned out to be Phil Makanna getting ready for a photo flight. So I got a chance to say thanks, and showed them how Phil kindly agreed to sign my dog-eared old copy of his first "Ghosts" book, which changed a small but not insignificant part of my life.

A few additional comments on Phil that I didn't share with the first-graders:

After 1979, Phil became a rock star of warbird photography, but not with photos like the ones in his first book, which sold poorly. His breakthrough was in a daringly large-format calendar of air-to-air shots, which jump-started a whole genre of such calendars and is the foundation of his successful "Ghosts" franchise to this day. These were accompanied by larger and slicker coffee-table books, featuring very high quality photography but of a more conventional nature than his initial foray.

He has cultivated a style that still has a tenuous link to his origins as a fine-art photographer; compared to others who do air-to-air cheesecake, his photos are exceptionally well crafted, and often feature carefully chosen terrain as background that works both on a content level (keying off of the historical environment and exploits of the type of plane, for example) and compositionally. For example, in this Nieuport shot from his 2011 World War I calendar, the agricultural terrain both recalls rural France, over which this type fought, and leads the eye in lines along the fuselage and across the wings. Most air-to-air warbird photographers achieve this type of compositional sympathy occasionally, almost as a fluke; Phil nails it often. Phil's other trademark over the years has been extensive darkroom work with heightened contrast and saturation, often having areas of burned out white and detail-less black. For the most part, this is very effective at creating an other-timely mood in his pictures, although on occasion, especially in the 1990s, it came off as a bit overcooked. Even then, though, it was at least a distinctive style. I never got the feeling that many other aviation photographers spent a lot of time in the darkroom, or tried to make their photos look like anything but a straight representation of what was in front of the camera.

Anyway, I bought all those books and most of the calendars but it was always the original 1979 book that I returned to when I needed inspiration for my photography. Besides being the most original of Phil's work, it also had the most to teach me in that many of the best photos were taken on the ground. Air-to-air photography is nice to look at, but there isn't as much to learn from it for the spare-time shooter who can't or won't put in the effort to get the access that it requires. It's like watching Roger Federer play tennis: beautiful, but not that helpful for improving your play, because he just doesn't play the same game you do. Phil's 1979 photos prove that you don't need to wangle rides in the back of T-6s or B-25s to make beautiful, original statements about old planes. Being on the ground can give you more creative freedom in some ways.

If you do aviation photography and haven't seen the first Ghosts, you should get it. There are always three or four copies on ebay, usually for about the price of a burger and fries. In fact, this is the one book of aviation photography that I'd recommend, and frequently show, to photographers with no particular interest in airplanes.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Review: Flight Journal Aviation Photography Issue

The magazine Flight Journal has a special issue on Aviation Photography that is on newsstands now. I would post a cover shot, but can find no image or mention of this issue on Flight Journal's website, which evidently has better things to do than promote Flight Journal publications, and I haven't bought a copy. So these are my impressions from browsing it at the newsstand.

The magazine contains a selection of aviation photos, old and new. Flight Journal's Editor-in-Chief is Budd Davisson, and Budd was not too modest to include many of his own photos in the publication. In itself, that's not inappropriate, because Budd is one of the most important aviation photographers, having established conventions for air-to-air photography in the 1970s that still frame the genre today. Sitting here, I can easily call to mind a dozen of his iconic images from the 1970s and 80s that appeared as magazine covers, photo spreads, and posters in Air Classics, Air Progress, and other publications. I have attended his talks illustrated by slides of many of these shots and would be delighted to buy a magazine, or better yet a well produced book, compiling these pictures. Unfortunately, almost none of them appear in this volume. There are a couple of familiar older pictures, such as a straight-down shot of an orange and green Fokker Dr.I replica from the 1970s, but most of the Davisson shots in this magazine are newer and less impressive. I suppose, sadly, that Budd may not even control the rights to much of his best older work.

Outnumbering Budd's images in this book are those of John Dibbs, the British master of air-to-air warbird pinup photography whose work has become familiar through Aeroplane magazine and his own "Legends" book franchise. Dibbs' work is as professional, sumptuously produced, pretty, and slick as a Christina Aguilera song, but also similarly undifferentiated and lacking in creative or emotional range. Looking through the Dibbs-dominated images in this volume, as well as contributions by photographers such as Paul Bowen and others, I get the impression not so much of a variety of aviation photographs, but more of a variety of aircraft taking turns appearing in the same photograph.

That's probably what Flight Journal's audience, composed of airplane buffs rather than photography buffs, wants. The captions also avoid giving any serious technical information on how the photos were accomplished, which again is probably an astute assessment of the audience's interests. There is certainly some nice softcore airplane imagery here. For someone interested in photography, it's a bit of a disappointment.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A-36 Walk-Around

For aviation shutterbugs like me who keep their feet on the ground, the ultimate photo-op is to get some time with a nice airplane, in uncluttered surroundings, free of "keep back" tape and canopy covers, and the opportunity to inspect and shoot the plane from any angle. Such a chance was afforded to me recently at Planes of Fame in Chino, CA. The plane was a special one, an A-36 Invader, which is an early dive-bomber variant of what would become the famous P-51 Mustang. Only two A-36s exist, with the other in a museum; and only a handful of visually similar P-51As exist, two of them also at Chino.

During my most recent visit to the museum, an A-36 temporarily in residence at Planes of Fame was pulled out for a new pilot to take a short check flight in the machine and then fly it for a photo mission. So the aircraft was on the ramp for three or four hours, mostly with nobody around it, under progressively more favorable lighting conditions. Plus there were two sets of start-up/taxi/shut-down sequences associated with the flights. So there was a chance for static shots, action shots, even a little human interest. It's the type of opportunity that I no longer waste, having regrettably failed to take advantage of some in my younger and more frugal days.

I treat these occasions the same as I would a photo session with a great human model, or anything else worth expending a few rolls of film on that is willing to sit still. Most of the time I am not shooting pictures but walking around, studying the play of light on the surfaces, becoming familiar with the curves and forms. Photography can enhance your visual understanding of a subject because it forces you to attend closely to the way something (or someone) is put together, makes you pull out the most attracting and interesting elements. Without the goal of getting good pictures, most of us would not do this work.

I have a few standard shots that I always get. There's the obligatory front-quarter beauty shot, for example. If I have a wide angle with me (20mm Flektogon in this case) I usually look for a couple of wide views near the tail. It's also been my habit lately to get a vertical front-quarter close-up shot bunching together items near the center of the aircraft, such as the cockpit and one landing gear. Otherwise, I let the airplane guide me.

When the aircraft taxied out and back, I skittered away from the small crowd that gathered and planned my shots from positions I wanted with the right lighting and backgrounds. This is an opportunity one doesn't easily get at airshows, where things happen fast and mobility is more limited.

I'll cop to some pangs of envy for the air-to-air photog who went up in a Navion for some portraits of this beauty upstairs. It was a fine day and no doubt he got some good stuff. Then again, he was wrapped up in his aerial mission and didn't get the stuff I got, either. Not only did I come back with a few dozen solid images, but I feel I've learned the looks of the Allison-powered Mustang in a way I had never managed before, despite having seen and photographed all the other intact ones that exist. When it comes to airplane shooting, that's a good day for me.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Seafire PR503

This airplane flew last week, following a 40+ year restoration by at least three owners. It probably will be the warbird sensation of the Oshkosh airshow later this month, when it makes its public debut.

I wish that the picture were better. It was taken around 2000 near Minneapolis with one of the plane's previous owners. I was in town on a business trip relating to a corporate acquisition. I was not expecting to have spare time to see old airplanes or other sights, so I didn't bring a camera. One day the deal cratered (as corporate law jocks like to say when a sale is abandoned) and we all found ourselves with a free afternoon. The museum that owned the Seafire was closed that day, but I called and talked someone there into letting me in. I bought some disposable cameras at a drug store on the way there, and did what I could with them. In the ill-lit hangars, that wasn't much, and I came away with no photos of some pretty neat planes, including a Lockheed P-38 that was about to be sent to Duluth for static display that I'll probably never see again. The Seafire was in an open restoration hangar and I was at least able to get some poor pics. That was about the last time I went on any trip without a decent camera.

An old-time photojournalist -- nobody is sure who -- when asked how to get good news pictures, said "f/8 and be there." "F/8" is just a typical lens setting; the point is that a lot of photography is just about being in the place where something happens, whether it is a war or a sunset, with a camera at the ready.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Women and Planes

My attention was drawn recently to, an outfit that produces calendars and live events built around the combination of attractive young ladies, dressed and styled for a 1940s look, posing with restored military airplanes of that era.

The photography on the site is conventional and mostly competent, if a bit cliched. Some of the poses are awkward, and the Warbird Pinup photographers are not as adept at flattering the models as, for example, the guys at Sports Illustrated showed themselves to be when using similar WWII aircraft as props: Of interest at present, though, is not the merits of the particular photography but the whole concept of pairing young women with old planes.

The babe-and-machine shot is nothing new, and there are whole magazines such as Easyriders,, filled with this genre. Scantily clad women also have a special history with World War II aircraft, having been a popular theme in nose art painted by servicemen during the period. I understand the appeal of photos of young women and of photos of old planes or other beautiful machines, but not really the combination. As a fashion accessory, airplanes are not easy to wear well. Women draped over planes almost always end up in positions that look uncomfortable and unnatural, or else they have no relationship to the plane at all and just happen to be sharing the frame. The women don't do much for the attractiveness of the planes, either, assuming anybody is even looking at the planes. Actually I've never seen a photo of a woman and a plane, or a motorcycle or car or whatever, that really works as a photo that is even as good as the sum of its parts. Not one. I can't really even envision what one would look like.

The juxtaposition does, of course, raise interesting psychological questions about just exactly why guys like to look at pictures of cars, planes, and bikes. But maybe it's best not to go there.

This doesn't seem to bother the following of Easyriders or Warbird Pinups, however. They must figure: it's got a chick, it's got a cool ride, it's all good. Never mind whether they go together well. Hey, could I get a scoop of ice cream on my pizza?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Olympus 35 EC - "for parts or repair"

My spouse has been encouraging me to pare down my camera collection, even if it means throwing cameras away. For once, I found the opportunity to oblige.

Some time ago I bought an Olympus 35 EC. This is a simple, 1970s camera with zone focusing (i.e. you focus by guessing the distance with the help of little icons like one person, three people, mountain) and automatic-only exposure. I guess I was feeling nostalgic because the first camera I ever owned was very much like this, and I got some fine pictures with it. The 35 EC has the same highly regarded 42mm f2.8 lens as the more collectible Olympus 35 RC, a rangefinder camera with shutter priority and metered manual modes which I also own (shown above at right). The 35 EC that I bought for $4.99 looked nice in the online auction listing, and when I got it home and put batteries in it, I found that the aperture and shutter speed changed depending on what I pointed it at, indicating the electronics were awake. However, someone had attempted to repair the lens and had bungled it up badly. I tried re-repairing it, but found too many broken parts to get it back together (and broke a few more trying).

I looked out for a cheap second 35 EC to donate parts to fix the lens, and after a while found one that was going for 99 cents because of a nasty dent in the top casing. The lens of this one looked all right; as expected, nothing else about it worked. But before getting around to the repair I lost interest, so I had two broken 35 ECs lying around.

Finally though, under domestic pressure to shed a camera, I dug them out of the closet to attempt the repair. I was hoping just to replace the front part of the lens assembly, but the more I took apart the lens of the first camera, the more broken parts I found. I finally realized I was going to have to transplant the entire lens assembly from the lens donor to the first camera. This is not too difficult to do on these cameras because there is no electronic wiring involved, the light sensor being on the camera body, and just a simple linkage from the focus cam to the viewfinder display. Nevertheless the lens comes apart into quite a few pieces, and fitting the lens into its focusing helical -- the thing that had defeated whoever worked on this lens before me -- is tricky. Four or five parts have to fit together perfectly while being rotated down the helical until they seat right. When they do seat right, however, you know it: suddenly everything is just where it should be, and you're not even certain how it got that way.

I just knew, once everything dropped into place, that the lens focus would be properly collimated. But this is a difficult thing to test on this camera because there's no way to manually hold the aperture and shutter open while you squint at the image on a piece of magic tape stretched across the film gate. The solution was to dial the ASA to its slowest setting, cover the light meter cell completely with electrical tape, then fire the camera. The camera thinks it's very dark and keeps the shutter open for several seconds, long enough to check whether the focus is right. And it was.

The shutter seemed a bit sluggish, so I dribbled a little Ronsonol into it with the bottom plate off. While I was at it, I made one more change. My original 35 EC was silver; the lens donor camera was black. I preferred black, but the black top casing of the second camera was too dented to use. I did, however, swap the black bottom plate onto the original camera, so now it has a silver top and black bottom -- a combination never seen in production, and a reminder that it's a hybrid camera. The shutter seemed to ease up with the Ronsonol, so I loaded a film and went shooting.

That first roll of film was very disappointing, with all frames overexposed by several stops. Apparently, the shutter was still very sluggish. But I know what to do when a little Ronsonol fails to get a mechanism working: try again with a lot of Ronsonol. So I fairly drenched the interior of the camera with lighter fluid, getting it inside the viewfinder, on the shutter blades, and a lot of other places it shouldn't go. It leaked out of every opening in the camera casing. I sloshed it around, drained it, let it evaporate for a few days, cycled the shutter a few hundred times, then tried again with a new film.

This time every frame was perfectly exposed, in light conditions ranging from the dim basement of Grand Central Terminal to a sunny-16 day outside. Finally I had a working 35 EC. And, I had a dead donor camera that I could throw away to make a show of thinning my collection. Win-win.

And it really is a fine little camera. It's compact, but heavy for its dimensions because it's made of good old metal. The little 42mm lens really is a corker. Exposures are accurate, and the ASA dial is so conveniently placed that it is easy to treat as an exposure compensation dial. All of the pics in this post were taken during my daily commute, with what will be my everyday walkabout camera for a while.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

At the Asylum

In late March and early April I was part of a team trying a case in federal court in Central Islip, a town in the middle of Long Island, New York. While there I noticed some extraordinary abandoned buildings and learned about the Central Islip Psychiatric Hospital, one of three large asylums on Long Island where patient-inmates from New York City were held from the 1890s through the 1990s. The asylum at Central Islip sprawled over 1,000 acres and, at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s, housed about 10,000 inmates. Much of it has been razed and converted to other uses, including condominiums, a shopping mall, a commercial office park, baseball fields, and the courthouse where my trial was taking place. But a number of the asylum buildings remain. Converted to classrooms and dormitories, some form the core of the New York Institute of Technology's Central Islip campus. Others, often mixed among the NYIT buildings, are abandoned.

The asylum buildings were beautifully constructed and have decayed with dignity. Photographically, decaying buildings are all about detail, and for me, that means an excuse to shoot medium format film.

My trial lasted almost four weeks, and was close enough to my home that I could return home for a night or two on weekends. After the first week when I noticed and researched the facility, I brought a Mamiya RB67 with 90mm and 50mm Sekor lenses. For the third week, I brought two vintage TLRs, a 1937 Zeiss-Ikon Ikoflex and a 1955 Yashicaflex. For the fourth week, I brought back the two TLRs plus an Olympus 35RC.

The abandoned structure most obvious from the road passing through the facility is the former administrative headquarters.

A striking thing about the abandoned asylum buildings is the way they have been allowed to decay without desecration. There is no graffiti and almost no litter. The grounds are heavily patrolled by local and NYIT police. They are nice to you if you are walking a dog, taking pictures or just looking around, but evidently quick to run off any groups of kids or other loiterers who might be up to no good.

Across the road are abandoned housing and other facilities for the asylum staff.

Behind these buildings used to be a group of structures known as the String of Pearls, because they were of especially handsome design and linked by a series of covered passageways. Unfortunately all traces of that complex have vanished.

NYIT has occupied and repurposed a number of the old asylum buildings. Its crown jewel is Building 66, formerly the medical-surgical building, now an administrative center for the campus.

Connected to 66 is the former kitchen and dining hall for the hospital, which became the NYIT culinary school, complete with epicurean restaurant. There was not much activity around this building and I was unable to determine whether either the culinary program or the restaurant are still operating. Too bad; I would have liked to eat there.

Other buildings have been repurposed in ways sensibly related to their original functions, such as nurses' residences now used as student dormitories. One of the largest buildings lies abandoned at the heart of the campus.

Known as the Admissions building, this is where patients were first taken on arrival to the asylum after disembarking from the train on the facility's special rail spur from the Long Island Railroad. They were held in wards in this building for examination until their ultimate home within the asylum was decided.

Those decorative window frames behind the plate glass, as on all of the asylum buildings where patients were held, are made of cast iron.

Many of the facility's buildings were linked by underground or half-underground tunnels. I stood on the roof of one of the half-underground ones to take this picture; it ran to a building that no longer exists.

The most remarkable and sobering of the surviving buildings is the Sunburst Building. So called because, in plan view, it consists of long wings that radiate from a central courtyard like the spokes of a half-wheel.

The Sunburst building was for psychiatric patients who also had tuberculosis, and who therefore had to be isolated from the other inmates. In the early part of the 20th century, sunlight and fresh air were thought to be therapeutic for TB. So the wings of Sunburst were set up as rows of patient rooms with open porches, to encourage the occupants to sit in the fresh air, but enclosed by cages so they couldn't escape. Some of the cages are still in place.

I did not enter any buildings at the facility, but I did poke my digital camera through the cages for a few shots of the former patient quarters inside.

Some of the porches have had glass installed between the cage wires.

Walking around Sunburst at dawn was profoundly disturbing. If you are the type who believes, or just likes to fancy, that land and buildings retain the spiritual traces of what has gone on there, this land and the buildings on it are drenched in misery, misunderstanding, compassion, and cruelty.

In a few wings the cages have been torn out altogether,

and so it is possible to step up on the porches and contemplate things from a patient's perspective.

Sunburst is part of NYIT's piece of the asylum grounds, and parts of it were renovated and occupied by the college in the 1980s. The college has scaled back its operations at this campus, however, and those parts of the building now have been abandoned a second time.

Next to Sunburst is the jarring incongruity of this early experiment in prefabricated housing, the "Aluminaire." Shown at exhibitions in 1931 and 1932 in New York and subsequently abandoned, the house was rescued and relocated to the Central Islip campus in the 1980s by NYIT's architecture program. That program, however, has since left the campus, and the house essentially is now abandoned again.

Another cluster of asylum buildings known as the James Group is characterized by three-arch entranceways. Some are still in use -- one is even a day care center -- but at least one is abandoned.

Six or seven feral-looking cats eyed me with loathing from the Japanese garden behind this deserted building. There were more cats inside.

The pace of demolition of the old buildings accelerated in the 2000s, and many of the surviving buildings likely will not be around much longer.

In the center of the facility was an open recreational area, including a golf course that is still in use as such by the town. This derelict grandstand was built behind home plate of a long-gone baseball diamond. I have read that the upper structure was built from rails salvaged from one of the railroad spurs that used to cross the asylum grounds.

The most obscure and inaccessible part of the asylum was the old cemetery. Mental illness was not often cured in the early and mid twentieth century, and many patients never left the facility. The grounds where they are buried, squeezed between the federal courthouse and a law school in a corner of the former asylum property, bears many no-trespassing signs but no external indication of what it is, and is surrounded by a fence topped by barbed wire along which especially thorny bushes have been encouraged to grow. The authorities really don't want you to know this place exists; it took some research to figure out where it was, and it was hazardous just getting to the fence to poke my Olympus through it. No grave markers are really visible. From what I have read, most were small to begin with, bore no information except a number, and are mostly overgrown. Once I knew what to look for, I found that the pattern of the graves was vaguely discernible from the aerial perspective of the upper floors of the adjacent courthouse.

A number of galleries of photos of the Central Islip facility, including the interiors of many of the buildings and the cemetery, have been put up by adventurous photographers who have learned to disregard no-trespassing signs. Many of their images are fascinating, but that type of thing isn't my style. What I did experience of the facility was enough to open my eyes to a new aspect of Long Island history that is fast disappearing, and to make me reflect in both thought and photographs on some of the secrets of the places where we work and live.