I first met Philip Makanna in June of 1994. I was in San Francisco, covering the VISCOMM West show at Moscone Center for the now defunct Camera & Darkroom magazine. While scurrying from the show floor to a seminar, a man spotted the Buick Club of America jacket that I was wearing and flagged me down. He didn't have a Buick, but wanted to know if I might know of a Cadillac club, as he was restoring a 1961 model. I didn't have time to chat, but said that I'd send him the address when I returned home. He gave me his business card, on the back of which I hurriedly jotted "Caddy club info" and streaked for my seminar.
. Following the show I was sorting through the collected fistful of business cards, checking the backs for any needed action, when I got to the one with the Caddy info request. The front of the card bore the name Philip Makanna, an image of a WW II fighter, and the word "Ghosts" beside it. A light bulb flickered to life. For several years, during my annual fall hunt for the next year's calendars, I had seen and admired a large (14x20" closed, 20x28" opened) calendar of WW II aircraft, all photographed air-to-air and in full color, bearing the GHOSTS title.
. Suspecting that this calendar was the work of the photographer whose card I was holding, and picking up the editorial scent of a possible story, I so enquired when forwarding details on the Cadillac-LaSalle Club. Sure enough, it was, and an interview was agreed to. Philip's heavy shooting schedule, combined with production of his latest book, would postpone our getting together until the following year.
. Upon arriving at the Makanna's lovely home overlooking San Francisco Bay, and after a thorough inspection by Fatso, Stinky and Lulu, the resident cats, we settled into Philip's downstairs editing room, adjacent to the darkroom, to discuss this fascinating niche that he has carved for himself in the diverse realm of photography.
Camera Arts: Air-to-air
photography of vintage aircraft is a rather specialized photographic niche.
How did you become involved with it?
. I started out as a painter, then wandered off into sculpture, and then film and video. I made several feature films for the local PBS station, then the American Film Institute, and a bunch of N.E.A. grants. The next step was to do a proper feature film with a proper budget, but I just couldn't raise the budget. I started doing still photography with a camera my mother got me. I started doing slides, and I've never done anything other than transparencies. I've never gone through any kind of "proper" photographic training. The process, coming from painting to where I am now, has all, to me, been very logical; I feel that I'm doing the same thing that I started out doing when I was a painter.
. I went out on a job for a women's sports magazine, to Reno, photographing some women sky divers. There were some World War II airplanes there, recreating the battle of Pearl Harbor. I thought that was funky and interesting, and I took some pictures of it. I had those pictures in my case when I went back to New York to try to sell a book on little traveling circuses, you know, two elephants, one toothless tiger, that I had
working on. Wonderful stuff, but the airplane pictures caught somebody's
fancy, and became my first book, GHOSTS, which was a moderate success.
Then my wife, Jean, and I decided to publish a calendar of the pictures,
because we couldn't get a publisher interested at the time. That was before
the explosion in calendars, about 1984. We started the GHOSTS calendar
in 1980. We wedged our butts into a corner and decided to do this big
calendar, which everybody advised us not to do. Somehow we survived the
first five years, and then everybody and his brother was making calendars.
By then we had gained acceptance, and were selling the calendar to B.
Dalton and Walden's, staying a couple of inches ahead of the mob. Now
it's known internationally; everyone in aviation knows about the GHOSTS
. So fate has guided the whole thing. As I started out life with airplanes, the airplanes came back to me. Now they're my life. Most of my friends are plane guys, I don't know many photographers.
CA: When you were first
getting into this field, were there any other air-to-air photographers
whose work inspired you?
CA: What format do you
use and why?
CA: I gather, then, that
you mostly shoot from an open cockpit?
CA: What film do you
prefer, and what characteristics contribute to that preference?