The Making of "The Blue Max" Squad Photo
I have always been intrigued by this series of pictures of a group of German World War 1 pilots having a party. I have not been able to find out much about the pictures other than the whole photo album was sold at auction some years ago.
I know for "The Blue Max Project" I want to have a mix of sketches and "faux" photographs to put in Rupp's journal and I was intrigued by the idea of trying to recreate a squad photo of the key characters in the book. This effort will help with character development and create an aesthetic for what photographs look like in the sketchbook. I decided to see if I could find enough of the right faces in these three photos to use. There are so many characters in these photos, it didn't take long to get there.
Oberleutnant Karl-Heinz Kettering
Kettering was adjutant for the squad, and was responsible for introducing Bruno Stachel to the Jasta when he first arrived. He was a tolerant and patient man who enjoyed making jokes and having a good time.
“the Jasta adjutant, was a friar-bald, bell shaped man whose principal spare time interest was the collection of erotica…Kettering was a man of few pretensions, and if he had any notable characteristics in his make-up it was his willingness to accept the pretensions of others.”
Leutnant Ziegel - Mechanic
Ziegel was described as Jew with dark eyes and direct attitude. He loved his aircraft more than the pilots who flew them and he wasn't afraid to show it. A good friend of Kettering, they had long chats trying to figure out Bruno Stachel.
“He was a Bavarian, and as such he was direct”
“Ziegel opened his watering eyes. His sobs were loud and dry. “I’ve done it again.”
“I’ve lost another of my machines.”
Hauptmann Otto Heidemann
He was a thoughtful and calculating. He had high standards and held his pilots to task. He considered himself an excellent judge of character, but some felt his insight was flawed... that he couldn't see the forest for the trees. He was somewhat distracted from his role because he left behind Elfi a woman he loved dearly. He was also the most accomplished and decorated ace in the squad.
“One of the toughest and smartest fixtures you’ll find in the Imperial Air Service, my boy. I grant you he doesn’t look like much, being the skinny little runt he is, but he’s got an ironbound belly and a head full of real soldier-type brains.”
Leutnant Von Klugermann
This was a tough one. The nephew of the Graf and Grafin, he was considered an overweight aristocrat and a bit of a stuffed shirt. He flew with Stachel many times and was the one that witnessed some of his cruelest behavior. He is the one who started calling him "The Cobra". I couldn't find a good match for him so I used the image below of a German soldier from WW2.
“The fat aristocrat with the perpetual pout.”
Leutnant Bruno Stachel
Easily my best match, this pilot had that vacant look of a man who is both handsome and hard to read. Stachel was a severely flawed character who could be both brutally cruel and at the same time racked with insecurity. He was socially awkward but driven to achieve fame and fortune. Some feel Jack Hunter based this character on some of the officers he dealt with while gathering up Nazi war criminals towards the end of World War 2.
”wide set gray eyes, his close cropped fair hair”
”In specifics, the young face had been composed and the voice restrained, and the body, although alert and postured, had hinted an underlying grace and dynamic integration of muscle and nerve. The whole, though, had presented an interesting double image. This lad, he felt, carried with him an unspoken- and perhaps even unrecognized – fear.”
Posing the squad.
It took a lot of careful editing to get these five characters to sit together nicely (maybe the digital world is not that different than the real world!). I had to edit out hands and arms, paste in parts of other tunics and objects to make it work. Once I was reasonably satisfied I added more detail. If you look closely I edited the shoulder patches to "77" to match the Jasta number identified in "The Blood Order" (the sequel to "The Blue Max"). I also added the Pour Le Merite and other badges to Heidemann's tunic since he was the Hauptmann of the Jasta and a decorated ace. I pushed Stachel a little bit away from the other men. He would have been very uncomfortable with being asked to pose for a picture and probably needed a drink or two in him before he would have even considered it.
I was pleased with the final pose. The goal here was not to replicate a perfect photo, just to catch the mood of the original photos above. Trying to keep in mind that this is more of a graphic novel than a historical recreation.
Building the background.
Jasta 77 was located a short walk from the farm town of Beauvin. The "officer's mess" was located in a three story house in the middle of the village. The house was previously owned by the factory manager. Now I needed to build the room inside the house as a backdrop for the photo.
I knew I had to start with the portrait described below.
“Over the mantel, a bewhiskered and fierce looking old man glared out from the heavily framed oils that captured him at least a century before. Some wag had used crayon to fit him out in flying helmet and goggles”
With that done I gathered the objects I thought I might need to complete the backdrop. A vintage sofa, the hearth, some appropriate "trophies" to hang on the wall and the hooks to hang them on. It was good fun piecing them all together.
Here is the final composition (Photoshop is a wonderful thing!).
Making the photograph look old.
I had taken a stab at trying to turn some flight sim screen shots into vintage photos in the past. I converted everything to black and white, matched the colors, added grain and blur until it looked about right. Still didn't look like a real photo. The breakthrough was a technique described in "How to Cheat in Photoshop Elements" by David Asch & Steve Caplin. It had been sitting on my shelf for a few years and I picked it up looking for some help on how to create a vintage photo. The technique they described involved taking aged paper, scanning it and placing it as a layer both above and below the image and setting the blend mode to "hard light". I can't explain exactly why it works but you get all the texture and the image too. I had some Epson Photo Paper that I intended to print on, but instead I cut it to the same size as the digital image, crumpled it and folded it in places, than aged it with coffee. I glued it to a sheet to scan it. I was sloppy and some of the glue got on my fingers so it made some imperfections on the surface too. In the end those imperfections added a lot, so I will be sure to do it on purpose next time!
Once I had it pulled together, I played around with light levels and saturation until it looked right. I added a few of the flight sim screen shots too and gave them the same treatment.
"I am a piano player, but yet I'm not. I am a painter, yet I'm not. I am a novelist, but I am still working on it."
This is my favorite Jack Hunter quote.
For "Rupp's Skizzenbuch" to work it needs to be a mix of journal writing, sketching and photographs. Regarding the aesthetic of the journal, the photography was one of the last pieces of the puzzle.
Now it's about investing the time and telling the story to see where the story takes me as a writer, an artist, a photographer and as a person. The first three I am and I am not. The last one I am still working on.
PS: I have updated the credits to include any images used here....see the "About" section.