I have to admit, I have mixed feelings about Black History Month.
Like many (including some very prominent black entertainers, pundits, and advocates), I believe black history is American History and should be celebrated the year round, not relegated to twenty-eight days in February.
Twenty-nine if you count leap year... :D
Still, it does allow us to discover, highlight, and share some amazing people, places, and stories centering around African-Americans and their accomplishments. Stories that might otherwise never reach mainstream America.
And yes, if you want to interpret that as white America, I won't argue.
So, with that in mind, I'm proud to contribute to Black History Month a recount of my own brush with American (and black) military history: meeting and photographing former Tuskegee Airman Daniel Keel, an artistic and personal accomplishment that had been on my bucket list for years, and ended up going far beyond simply taking some pictures for a magazine.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. Now, this is not the place (and I am definitely not the person) to go into a detailed history of them and their role in World War II. That's easy enough for you to Google on your own (I've also added some links at the end of this post for further reading and viewing). But what I do want to point out is the ultimate irony of the simple fact that these young men did not choose to be heroes.
In a more tolerant and less racist America, most of these men would have been perfectly happy to just serve their country as soldiers, sailors, and pilots, no different than anyone else contributing to the war effort.
Some would have risen to various levels of greatness. Most would not. Some would have died for their county. Most would have made it through the war unscathed.
Instead, the climate of segregation in America in the 1940s never allowed that normalcy, and it was this isolation of men of color, designed at the time to protect the integrity of our Armed Services, that eventually led to a group of determined individuals that collectively rose (both figuratively and literally) above the prejudices of the white majority, to accomplish feats of bravery and heroism so remarkable they ultimately attained folk lore status.
Ok, back to our story...
Providing photographs for a feature story for a magazine often requires a lot of moving parts to work in sync. Choose your analogy: cogs in a complex machine or planets aligning in space. Either way, this assignment was no exception. Thankfully, two elements that were eventually crucial to the shoot were already clear in my mind long before I was ever given this story: one, using the Fantasy of Flight Aviation Museum in Polk City, Florida (a place I had known about and had visited) as a wonderful scenic backdrop location for an airplane-themed shoot; and two, knowing how I would go about photographing a Tuskegee Airman's portrait if I ever had the opportunity.
And so, one fine day in the fall of 2011, out of the clear blue yonder, the call came from Pulse the Magazine. Could I set up a portrait photo shoot with former Tuskegee Airman Daniel Keel in Clermont? He awaited my call.
You could not wipe the smile from my face...
While I realize the bigger story here is certainly not about me, truth is, the surviving members of this distinguished group of men were not getting any younger (Keel was 89-years-old at the time of our shoot). That meant my window of opportunity to be even the tiniest part of this remarkable chapter in history was closing. And that was something I thought about from time to time.
Thankfully though, it was still open enough for me to climb through...
What you need to know is, even having already been given the assignment, and of course, assuming Keel was agreeable to the shoot and cooperative, there are degrees of how complex a photo or series of photos I would be able to create. This would range all the way from what we were eventually able to accomplish: a full-fledged, time consuming staged location shoot with props and lighting, to what's called a "grab shot": a quick and simple snap portrait that requires neither time nor effort, but instead simply fulfills a publication's need for artwork.
Fortunately, I was able to do both. Two shoots at two different times in two different locations. The first, a series of relaxed candids taken at our first meeting at Keel's Clermont home (directly above), captures his warmth and friendliness, and while nice, was actually my backup plan in the event I couldn't pull off a much more ambitious shoot later with a beautiful Red Tail Mustang airplane I knew was at the Aviation Museum.
In this business, you always cover your butt. You get your sure shots first, then work on the ambitious ones...
And let me tell you, the showcase portrait of Keel (top of page), the one that I'm so proud of and feel tells so much in such a simple way, was not a slam dunk by any means. It was an involved production, the coordination and planning of which required me to keep a lot of plates spinning in the air at the same time, which luckily is something I've become very good at over the years.
Some may find this slightly devious, but experience has taught me one of the best ways to bring everyone and everything together for this kind of production is to first convince someone that another party is interested, often before they actually are. Plant a seed. You then use that understanding to get the first party to agree, thus giving you ammunition to approach that second party. You use the confirmation of the first party to then cement the agreement of the second party, then the confirmation of the second party to go back and reinforce the agreement to the first party. And so on. And so on....
A game of photography ping pong, where the ends justify the means, and eventually everyone's on the same page...
In this case, I floated the idea to Daniel that Fantasy of Flight would be a wonderful place for a portrait shoot, as I knew they had a Red Tail Mustang, and would he consider heading over there to do it? I said the people there would love to have him appear and do this. This before I had any kind of permission or had even approached the museum.
So then, when he said sure, I took that. to the folks at Fantasy of Flight, and gave them a hard sell that local resident and American hero Keel really wanted to do this, and the photo (and mention in the magazine article) would be great publicity for the museum. And all they needed to do was clear off a small part of a runway for us for half an hour. Oh, and let us borrow their Mustang.
Well, how could they turn that pitch down?
They couldn't. And they didn't...
The rest was simply logistics, and we easily coordinated Keel and the museum's (and Mustang's) availability. The day arrived, Mr. Keel showed up, the weather cooperated, and I finally had my long-awaited opportunity..
Mr. Keel, clad in a slick Tuskegee Airmen commemorative satin jacket and hat from one of his reunions, was more than happy to stroll out onto the set on cue and patiently posed for me as I moved him around a bit, the lighting a simple one flash/beauty dish angled and aimed at him from slightly above. And because of my preparedness and efficiency, we got the shot without subjecting him to too much time and effort, something I'm sure he would have provided if asked, but something I wanted to avoid if at all possible.
And so, the main shoot finished, my captures were locked on my memory card, we called it a wrap, I tore down my set, and I had my Tuskegee Airman...
But the day didn't end there. You have to remember that feature magazine assignments involve storytelling, and I always want to capture as many facets of a story as possible, even if all the images don't end up being used, and especially when it doesn't require any extra work for me.
In this case, Mr. Keel decided to take a look at a multi-media exhibition set up in a nearby hanger specifically highlighting the Tuskegee Airmen. Of course I tagged along and grabbed a few more shots done in more of a photojournalistic style.
It was then that it hit me...
This whole event may have started out being about a photo assignment I had wanted and hoped for for years, but it turned into something much greater than that. Something that had nothing to do with photography. Seeing Daniel Keel coming face-to-face with his past these many years later, a series of incredible events and a chapter in history we now know was very painful for all those involved and embarrassing for this country, made me realize that the magic of this moment was not about taking pictures. It was about the privilege of spending time with this man and listening to him tell his personal story. Something that no photo of mine could ever fully show...
Not black history. American history.
As always, your comments and suggestions are more than welcome!