From Publishers Weekly
Books such as The Greatest Generation have eloquently argued that the men and women who survived World War II played a crucial role in determining Americas national culture; to some extent, Bachner agrees with this thesis. "Our current image of American masculinity was formed at that particular moment in time," he writes in the introduction to this moving book of duotone photos. But the image that was passed down most often suggested that Real Men were loners, rugged individuals who relied on no one. According to Bachner, however, the photographic record "flatly contradicts that notion." During his six years of research in the Still Pictures Branch of the National Archives and Records Administration, he unearthed a trove of Navy photos that "display a tender regard and closeness among men largely alien to our contemporary culture." Most of these images were taken by the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit, which was commanded by the famous photographer Edward J. Steichen for most of WWII. Many have never been published. Why were these servicemen able to form such affectionate friendships? In answer, Bachner quotes John DEmilio: "Living in close quarters, not knowing whether they would make it through the war, and depending on one another for survival, men of whatever sexual persuasion formed intense emotional attachments." Whatever the reason, these gorgeously composed, evocative images suggest that men then, as now, could let down the John Wayne stance to share a cigarette, laugh over a joke and do a little roughhousing.
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*Starred Review* In the brief, cogent introduction to this remarkable photo album, Bachner posits that these images of young sailors and marines shaped the ideal of manhood prevalent in American culture since World War II. The men depicted by the members of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit (all professionals before the war) are preponderantly in their late teens and early twenties, and whether on or off duty, at ease in that they aren't in combat. It's hot where they are in the Pacific or Mediterranean sun, and they're commonly shirtless, in shorts, or both; when bathing, infrequently when sunning, and in one striking image of a gunner returned to his post after a rescue, they're naked (no explanation survives for the gunner's nudity, but he is wet as from swimming). Youthfully slender, toned from training, unselfconscious in their leisure or work, they seem, given the military context, effortlessly heroic. Exhibited singly, if at all, the pictures were available to magazines, newspapers, and advertisers to use as is or as models throughout and a little after the war. They look, as Bachner says, as if they'd been taken this morning, except for the physical contact, often obviously affectionate, that the men often and innocently make with one another. It was a different time, eh? Ray Olson
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