UP IN THE AIR
Once again I am turning over today’s blog post to Associate Librarian, Rochelle Pienn. Ms. Pienn has been cataloguing and creating metadata links to a number of unique photograph albums recently donated to the Wolfsonian library by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf. Here is her report:
My grandfather joined the U.S. Air Force at the onset of World War II. My mother once showed me black and white photographs of nineteen-year-old Angelo Carella and all his Italian-American brothers winking mischievously at the camera, posing insolently yet proudly in their new official garb — young, excited ingénues to military life.
Upon closely examining pictures from three original photograph albums recently donated to the Wolfsonian Library by Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf, I felt myself drawn into the same qualities of anticipation and guilelessness apparent in the faces of British Royal Air force (RAF) squadron members stationed in Iraq and the Northwest Frontier of India. Between 1931 and 1936, just a few years before declaring war with Nazi Germany, Great Britain’s colonial interests involved facilitating a new, quasi-independent Kingdom of Iraq, training eager flyers on snazzy premier lightweight aircraft in the Cairo desert, and squelching Mohmand insurrections in the mountains of Pakistan and Afghanistan, sometimes less by battle and more through intimidation.
Possibly put together by “T. Fuller,” perhaps an eager RAF recruit, the three albums show a unity in handwriting, colloquialisms and photographic themes. The first album boldly declares its contents on the inside front cover: “R.A.F. Overseas Tour. Iraq. Nov. 1931-1933.”
Our man seems thrilled to be a part of the tour. In fact, the dawn of aviation as a cutting-edge tactical device of military enforcement swept Great Britain up into a celebration of its new-fangled technology. Here in Basra, Iraq, we see the “airmen” exploring the “Venice of the East” along the Tigris River, where picturesque “bellum” boats would no doubt have glared with color.
Fuller and his “chums” sight-see among the ruins of the ancient city of Ctesiphon, and make note of memorials to the Great War.
In the desert landscape, impressive structures from imposing ancient civilizations stand in contrast to the bustling, crowded areas of Baghdad, where society continues to flourish during this cautiously peaceful time of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty.
A reminder of conflict and violence between Sunni, Kurd, and Shiite never fully diminishes; a mysterious photo of a hooded person hanging from a public gallows indicates that reality still resonates with trouble.
Right after he secures this photo in his album, Fuller ends this pictographic tour with the “Airmens Farewell Dinner menu, March 1933.” The printed card lists the courses of the feast and is decorated with RAF luck symbols and insignias, such as spades and scorpions, but also with the unexpected, chilling inclusion of swastikas. The double-armed cross icon was, of course, a symbol of luck and prosperity in ancient times before appropriated and perverted into something more sinister by Hitler.
The second leg of our L.A.C.’s (Leading Aircraftman’s) assignment lands him in one of today’s most dangerous regions in the world. His photos in Iraq, Iran and Pakistan from 1932 – 1935, however, indicate a nearly carefree existence in an exotic locale. The Kingdom of Iraq officially makes a political transition with the death of King Faisal and the coronation of his son, King Ghazi.
Fuller’s photographs become more descriptive and journalistic; he takes us through Turkestan and the River Zab and brings us out to the Punjab district of Pakistan and the Murree hills.
As he travels, he presents a keen evolution of the photographic image, which starts to come through in crisper, more dramatic clarity. He effectively captures the bucolic utopia of the region—and its dramatic beauty, as expressed in this fantastic shot of an electrical storm.
Throughout all three albums, Fuller takes censorship-free shots of the more-than-occasionally wrecked aircraft and typical RAF activities, whether official or silly.
Particularly in the third album, containing views of India and Egypt from 1934 – 1935, there’s a sense of great cheer and lightheartedness, each picture startlingly present and alive. He spends the majority of his time in Cairo, where the R.A.F. base Abu-Sueir (Suwayr) trains its new pilots on light Atlases and Avro tutor airplanes. Even knowing the lesser importance of these aircraft to the Vickers and bombers captured in the first album, it is still disconcerting to come upon upside-down and nose-dived planes with tongue-and-cheek captions such as “error of judge-ment.”
Fuller also reveals a true talent for unselfconscious street photography in his candid shots of natives.
The culmination of his tours goes out with another rich meal: “The Passing-out dinner” of 1935. Lively people in obvious warm and genuine camaraderie lift their champagne flutes in a toast to the camera.
Their hopeful smiles betray their inability to suspect the maudlin reality of their precarious place in history, so obvious to us, the contemporary observers: the sobering understanding that these men, joyously joking around the banquet table and laughing at their own training snafus, will shortly be engaged in combat with Nazi Germany on the deadly front of the Second World War. It seems, however, the blustery glinting of their eyes, a reflection of my young Grandpa Angelo’s innocent courage, foreshadows victory.
We would like to express our sincere appreciation to Mr. and Mrs. Sharf for their generous gift. These three original photograph albums contain priceless historic information for scholars of this important region.