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.

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