Bygone beefcake

At Ease

February 18, 2005

Navy men at rest and play have Alex Danchev reflecting on a past innocence

A t Ease is a selection of images from the archives of the US Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, an exemplary rediscovery of an extraordinary source. The unit was founded and commanded by a sixty-something temporary lieutenant commander called Edward J. Steichen, who happens to be one of the greatest names in 20th-century photography.

Steichen, who had served with distinction during the First World War, experienced some difficulty in enlisting for the Second. After Pearl Harbor, he finally succeeded in persuading the US Navy that he might have something to contribute. He was given the task of putting together a team of photographers to document the activities of the Navy for the purposes of the Office of War Information, chiefly to rally support on the home front. The remit, therefore, was some combination of propaganda and photojournalism.

In classic style, Steichen handpicked his men for the mission. As documentarists they had interesting pedigrees, from assignments for Life magazine to work for the Farm Security Administration (FSA) alongside the likes of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. They became a distinguished cadre, contributing inter alia three postwar presidents of the American Society of Magazine Photographers (Barrett Gallagher, Victor Jorgensen and Wayne Miller, who also served as president of the celebrated Magnum Agency), and the mainstay of Life and Fortune magazines (Horace Bristol, Charles Fenno Jacobs and John Swope).

This little band followed the Navy wherever it went, especially in the Pacific. The photographers were told to document the lives of servicemen in war, not to do battle pictures. It has been said that military life is a question of hurry up and wait. At Ease is a compendium of waiting, not to say lolling about. The images are magnificently reproduced, in luscious large format. They consist overwhelmingly of men off duty or between duties, disporting themselves on deck, in the shower, at rest or at play, "roughhousing, wrestling, lounging and showing off", as Evan Bachner writes in a fond introduction.

In filmic terms, it is South Pacific in shorts. There is plenty of washing and shaving and swimming and sunbathing going on. From this collection one might well think that hell in the Pacific is a poor tan. It follows that there is plenty of what Bachner calls beefcake on view, most of it unposed - indeed, remarkably unselfconscious. It is a portrait of masculinity and male bonding that is natural, playful and frankly physical.

The tenor of these images is typically wholesome, no doubt a reflection of their provenance and purpose. A few may be mildly suggestive, or at least tongue-in-cheek, especially in their composition ("Enlisted men getting a sunning beside 16-inch guns aboard the USS New Jersey "). "We have no way of telling what was in the mind of the photographer or subject," Bachner remarks guardedly.

For the most part they seem to be snapshots of a world of unfeigned innocence. Many of them now look at once intimate and old-fashioned, like genre painting with the gender transposed: "Boy Reading a Letter", as it might be, "Marine in his Bath" or "VF-17 Pilots at their Toilette". In the most unpropitious circumstances, the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit captured a new avocation: the male odalisque.

In the publisher's catalogue, At Ease is billed as "Gay Interest/History/Photography", all of which may be true, but the project is, in any event, an inspired act of visual recovery - a world we have lost, and also a way of seeing. Unfeigned innocence is in short supply in off-duty Abu Ghraib.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

At Ease: Navy Men of World War II

Author - Evan Bachner
Publisher - Abrams
Pages - 160pp
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 8109 4805 2

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