One weekend in 2001 or 2002, I was leafing through old photos in an antiques shop on Fifth Avenue in Brooklyn, long since shuttered, when I found a group of black-and-white snapshots of a handsome young man. From the evidence of the photographs, he had served in the armed services during World War II, and he was so beautiful I wanted to buy all the photos. I no longer remember the price but they couldn’t have been more than a couple of dollars apiece. I was broke, unfortunately, and had to choose. Here’s the one I brought home:
It’s a little difficult at first to see the mirror that the soldier is looking into as he shaves. It’s hanging from one of the oak trees in front of him, and because it’s sideways to the camera, it appears as just a dark line, a little slanted from the vertical. The soldier’s satchel is hanging in a tree to his right, which from the camera’s perspective is behind him; a triangular flap of the satchel somewhat confuses the image around the shaving brush and the soldier’s chin. He’s using his helmet as a water basin.
Who was he? And who took the photo? Maybe if I had bought the whole set of snapshots I would have been able over time to puzzle out answers to these questions. He stuck in my mind, for reasons that I probably don’t need to spell out.
I’m not a very organized collector of photographs. At some point, for safekeeping, I slipped the snapshot photo between the pages of a book. Then I forgot which book. I played this game for a while. I would take The Poems of Alexander Pope off the shelf, and unexpectedly, there the soldier would be, in all his glory—Alexander Pope driven from my mind.
My boyfriend (later, husband) worked in those days as a book review editor for the Long Island newspaper Newsday, and one day in 2004, he brought home At Ease, by Evan Bachner, a coffee table book, no longer in print, of sailors lounging in dishabille in training camps and on board destroyers during World War II. I paged through with a mildly historical and not terribly high-minded interest until I hit this photo:
It’s all kinds of a showstopper, as you can see. It was the sight of this photo, in fact, in an exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum, that spurred Evan Bachner, the author of At Ease, to visit the Still Pictures branch of the National Archives and Records Administration in Maryland, sift through their collection of photographs taken during World War II by the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, and compile his book.
To be scrupulous about attribution, the source of the image you see just above isn’t Bachner’s book but a platinum print of the same photograph for sale from the Scott Nichols Gallery in San Francisco. By the way, there’s also a gelatin silver print of the same image available from the Clamp Art gallery in New York, which I saw at the AIPAD photography show a couple of weeks ago—my spur for at last writing this long-delayed blog post.
From Bachner’s book and the photography dealers’ listings, a little information about this photo of a naked gunner can be gathered. It was taken by Horace Bristol, who in the 1930s took pictures of Dust Bowl migrants in the company of John Steinbeck, providing the writer with inspiration for The Grapes of Wrath, and during World War II took pictures for the government with a team led by Edward Steichen. Here’s Bristol himself on location in what looks like the South Pacific:
Bachner reports that in the National Archives, Bristol’s image of the naked gunner bears this caption:
PBY Air-Sea rescue plane picks up Lt. Robert A. Schaeffer, badly burned USMC F-4-U pilot of Dayton, Ohio shot down in St. Georges Channel near Rabaul. Gunner who helped bring in pilot is back at station. April 1944: St. Georges Channel; Horace Bristol; 80-G-473978.
The photo has become fairly popular on the internet, and a number of websites, including the U.S. Naval Institute blog, reprint a paragraph from an interview with Bristol in the December 2002 issue of B&W magazine:
We got a call to pick up an airman who was down in the Bay. The Japanese were shooting at him from the island, and when they saw us they started shooting at us. The man who was shot down was temporarily blinded, so one of our crew stripped off his clothes and jumped in to bring him aboard. He couldn’t have swum very well wearing his boots and clothes. As soon as we could, we took off. We weren’t waiting around for anybody to put on formal clothes. We were being shot at and wanted to get the hell out of there. The naked man got back into his position at his gun in the blister of the plane.
As far as I know, the naked rescuer has never been identified.
I didn’t know any of this when I first saw the photo. My first reaction was a more personal and uncanny one: I recognized him.
Or thought I did. Here are close-ups of the faces of the man in my snapshot and of the man in Bristol’s image:
In my snapshot, the camera is looking from a lower angle than it is in Bristol’s, but the lines of the cheekbones match, as do the shapes of the eyes, eyebrows, noses, and chins. (It’s too bad that the ear of the man in Bristol’s photo is covered, because pinnae are distinctive and would probably prove or disprove the case.) The two men have the same moustache and roughly the same haircut. Ignore the chicken-pox-like spots on the arms of the man in the snapshot, including the one on his upper left cheekbone, because they’re blemishes in the emulsion not the original image. The only substantial differences I see are that the man in Bristol’s photo is more muscular and the aperture of his nostril is wider. But military training could have built up the man’s physique, and his nostrils might have been flaring, during Bristol’s photo, from the adrenaline rush of the rescue he took part in.
My hunch is that it’s the same man, though I acknowledge I can’t prove it. I wish I knew what became of the rest of the snapshots in that antiques shop—and who took them, and why.