With black and white photography, Anne Noggle (1922-2005) confronts the themes of gender equality and aging through portraits of women pilots from WWII in the United States and the Soviet Union. Female pilots, and especially those who volunteered to fly for the military, were seen as cultural anomalies. They challenged gender norms and flew away when society and sometimes their own families valued a woman in the home and kitchen. Noggle’s photographs of aging WWII pilots express their courage, challenge, femininity and love of flight. Above all, they capture a spirit that unites this rare group of aviation heroines. As a photographer, Noggle was specially equipped for this project from an insider’s perspective, as she was one of them.
After seeing Amelia Earhart perform at a local airport, Noggle asked her mother for permission to take flight lessons. In writing, her mother gave her support, which inadvertently led to her grandmother’s provoked comment: “You just signed her death certificate!” Noggle learned to fly in high school and played solo at the age of 17. In her own memoir, she admits to being a “wild ass” with a penchant for thrills like “buzzing cows” in the pastures of the farm.
In the summer of 1943, the adventurer volunteered as an Air Force Female Duty Pilot (WASP) and reported to the 318th Army Flight Training Detachment of air at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. The aim of the program was for female pilots to relieve the burden of male military pilots, so that men could fly in combat. Even though they were civilians, Noggle and her fellow female pilots lived and trained like the military. According to the âfinal reportâ from WASP Director Jacqueline Cochran, approximately 25,000 women applied for flight training, 1,830 were accepted and 1,074 graduated with wings. Noggle graduated with the class of 44??I was part of this elite and historic group of flying women. They towed target banners for air-to-air shooting practice, carried cargo planes, and served as flight instructors for the men. After the deactivation of WASPs in 1944, Noggle flew as a feather duster, stunt pilot in an aerial circus, and served as an air force captain during the Korean War. Health issues kept Noggle from flying planes, but a ray of hope opened the doors to his next career.
Under the GI Bill, Noggle went to college in his late forties and earned an MFA in photography from the University of New Mexico. Looking through the lens of a camera offered new perspectives as an artist and as a mature woman. The photographer sat in front of and behind the camera and pointed it at those around him. It was only natural to point the camera at her sisters in the sky and document the traits that united them through flight.
For God the country and the thrill of it
At a WASP meeting in 1986, Anne Noggle showed up with the intention of photographing her fellow pilots. Ahead of the rally, she shared a letter detailing the photography project:
For a long time I thought about making a photographic document of all of us as we look at ourselves todayâ¦ I thought about the fact that few women have had the opportunity not only to fly for our air force , but to be reunited willy-nilly in training and to know the bond that is generally associated with groups that live and work in close proximity. This feeling of belonging is all the more intense as the functions involve dangers and risks. This makes it so rare in women. Add to that the kind of independent women that we are and you have the portrait of a Women Airforce Service Pilotâ¦. I decided that I would take, not a group photo, but individual picturesâ¦.
Through her photographs, Noggle captured the uniqueness and similarities of each woman. A pose, a suitable uniform or not, facial expressions, hand gestures and even beautiful wrinkles defined the features of the women. To underline their particular attachment to a group, the captions of the photographs include their promotion. 44Â¯6 Mary Retick Wells is dressed in a full uniform and wears pearl earrings. The older pilot leaps into the air, elbows bent and arms outstretched, and looks like a white crane about to take off. Eye makeup and lipstick, a gentle smile, pinched fingers and a sense of balance by 44â¾9 Janet Wayne Tuch exudes femininity. Dressed in shorts and white tennis sneakers, 44â¾9 Barbara Hershey Tucker shows bandages on his bare legs. His stance and square shoulders, as well as a hard stare, say a lot about the “coarse” required for WASP work. The images reflect a phrase from Noggle’s letter to the pilots: âWe may not be younger but we are alive and well. “
The WASPs have served their country with patriotism and pride, but their uniforms are clearly lacking in medals or awards of honor. It was not until November 23, 1977 that they were officially recognized by the US military and obtained veteran status. However, status was limited and it would take more than three additional decades for WASPs to receive the honors and most of the benefits enjoyed by their male counterparts in the same jobs. Thus, the detail of the uniforms without medals testifies to their inequality.
A dance with death
During World War II in Russia, Soviet female aviators achieved what American female pilots could only dream of – flying in combat. Women in air regiments were given the same responsibilities as men, and by the end of the war women made up 12% of aviation assets. One of the best known and most promoted groups historically was the 588th Air Regiment with the nickname “Night Witches” associated with heartbreaking stealth bombing carried out in open cockpit biplanes after dark. The pilots shut down their engines to reduce noise and hover over targets for a surprise attack. Aside from the cockpit exposed in dangerous winter conditions, the greatest danger was entering and exiting enemy territory before being shot down. More than 32,000 combat sorties were carried out by three regiments composed of female pilots, and the title of Hero of the Soviet Union was awarded to 92 of the female pilots.
In his seventies, Noggle made six trips to Russia with an assistant and an interpreter to photograph the remaining Soviet pilots and record their stories for his book. A dance with death: Soviet female aviators in WWII. In the photographs of Zoya Malkova and Larisa Litvinova-Rozanova, they both greet each other. Maybe it brings to mind their time in the military or a nod to their American comrade behind the camera. Yevgeniya Gurulyeva-Smirnova holds a flower stalk as a cherished keepsake, possibly for fellow pilots who perished in the war. The delicate lace collar of Yekaterina Chujkova is a stark contrast to weighted military medals. The abundance of military medals attached to those in uniform is noticeably different from Americans. As combat pilots, the experiences of Soviet female aviators were very different from those of WASPs, but they shared the same passion for flight, a long-standing camaraderie, and one notable detail in the photographs: practicality for comfortable footwear. .
The big picture
The photographs of women pilots from WWII speak beyond the individuals or groups depicted. They tie into other Noggle projects with a general theme of aging women. Noggle’s work includes portraits of herself dressed and undressed, female family members over long periods of time, and elderly close friends in humorous and serious dispositions. Martha Strawn, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Anne Noggle Foundation, shared her views on Anne Noggle’s career as an artist as a photographer and said: âAnne was very aware of the how the culture viewed women and [how] they objectified young women and did not value them or their minds. . . . So I think his desire in doing this work was to show the change over a period of time in the way an individual matures and physically develops in the world, in light of the way the culture sees it. Indeed, Anne Noggle’s photographs offer a positive perspective on the longevity and enduring contributions made by women throughout the history of flight.