“We have a saying in Russia: If there hadn’t been an unhappy incident there never would be a happy one!” — Anne Noggle

In the history of photography, Anne Noggle (1922–2005) stands alone among the great American photographers for her powerful, wry portraits (including self-portraiture) of aging women — as Noggle called it, “the saga of fallen flesh.” 

First women combat pilots

Anne Noggle made six trips to the Soviet Union in her 70s to photograph the world’s first female combat pilots. Working with an assistant and an interpreter she interviewed these women telling their stories. The result was her book “A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II.”

When Hitler launched the Blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union in 1941 a third of the pilots trained in there were women. One story from the book tells the story of Captain Larisa Litvinova-Rozanova who survived an encounter with German anti-aircraft fire. A video at the end of this post tells the story of these fliers.

Cultural anomalies

“Women pilots, and especially those who volunteered to fly for the military, were considered cultural anomalies,” writes Carolyn Russo, curator for the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum. “They defied gender norms and took to the skies when society and sometimes their own families placed a woman’s value in the home and kitchen. Noggle’s photographs of aging World War II pilots convey their grit, defiance, femininity, and love of flying. Above all, they capture a spirit that bonds this rare group of aviation heroines together. As a photographer, Noggle was specifically equipped for this project with an insider’s perspective — because she was one of them.” (Opening photo, top row)

On Photography: Anne Noggle, 1922-2005
“Myself as a Pilot” self-portrait

A pilot herself

Anne Noggle was captivated with flying in her early teens when she saw Amelia Earhart fly an aerial show. She convinced her mother to let her take flying lessons, soloing at age 17. She became a pilot and was a self-described wild-ass pilot. She loved flying low over pastures buzzing cows.

Anne Noggle’s accounts of these courageous female combat pilots come from her own experiences as a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots — WASPs — who were the first American women trained to fly U.S. military aircraft in noncombat roles. She flew missions from 1943 to 1944. At the end of the war, the WASPs were disbanded. Anne Noggle became a stunt pilot in an aerial circus and she also worked as a crop-duster in the Southwest.

Artistic sense emerges

Later, the Air Force offered commissions to the former WASPs. She signed up and flew noncombat missions during the Korean War. She retired with the rank of captain because she developed emphysema.

Air Force assignments took her to Paris where she visited museums on many occasions mostly to the Louvre where she developed a deep appreciation for art. She returned to New Mexico and earned a bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of New Mexico in 1966 and 1969 respectively. She considered becoming an art historian but changed to photography after taking a course in it required for her major. Her professor, Van Deren Coke, reviewed her work and convinced her that her talents belonged behind the camera’s lens.

Saga of fallen flesh

Anne Noggle’s photographs of older women showed both the imperfections of age and the character they bring. Noggle photographed people she knew. One image is of her mother’s hands shows one holding her dentures the other displaying engagement and wedding rings. Another is a self-portrait named Face-Lift No. 3 (opening photo, bottom row, top image and the next image).

Noggle referred to the photographs she made of herself, her “saga of fallen flesh.”

Charles Hagen in the September 22, 1991 issue of The New York Times wrote, “Aging, and its effects not only on the body but on the psyche is a prime theme in Anne Noggle’s work. In one image, Ms. Noggle photographed herself after plastic surgery, with fresh stitches still visible beneath her eyes and a flower in her mouth. The profound dignity in the women’s faces, as well as the admiration and affection with which Ms. Noggle depicts them, is tempered by the sharp sense of physical loss the pictures express.”

“Anne was very aware of how culture saw women, and [how] they objectified young women and didn’t value them and didn’t value their minds … So I think her desire in doing this work was to show the change over a period of time of how an individual matures and develops physically in the world, in light of how culture sees them,” notes Martha Strawn, Noggle’s friend and the president of the board of the Anne Noggle Foundation.

Context: Soviet airwomen video

This 6-minute video tells the story of these airwomen in their own words. The photography is not from Anne Noggle. It shows the planes and described the mission these brave women flew. The Germans called them the “Night Witches.”

Sources: Museum of New Mexico Press, New York Times, Pro Photo Daily, Los Angeles Times

More stories of inspirational photographers are in On Photography.