Whether he was shooting men’s shoes or men at sea, Charles E. Kerlee spared no attention to detail.
In his book Pictures With a Purpose, photographer Charles E. Kerlee explains, image by image, how he achieved his goals. In two painstakingly detailed pages, he describes a single photo’s intent, composition, camera placement, lighting, exposure (“over-exposure would have caused loss of the delicate middle tones…”), development, and printing.
His subject: a man’s shoe and glove.
When Kerlee’s book was published in 1939, he was one of the top advertising photographers in the U.S., with a studio in Los Angeles and a long list of clients. And when master photographer Edward Steichen, 62, began assembling his Naval Aviation Photographic Unit in early 1942, Kerlee, then 34, was among the first he sought out. Steichen’s selection of photographers “caused some eyebrows to be raised,” he later said, but he believed assembling photographers from a variety of disciplines would yield the best results.
All of the “Original Six” he recruited entered the U.S. Navy as officers; their job officially was to provide images to aid in pilot recruiting. But Steichen’s intent was to capture the navy at war. Kerlee spent most of his time aboard the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-10), photographing men at work and leisure. Later in the war he also served on the carrier USS Hornet (CV-12) and on Pacific islands in the aftermath of battle. Kerlee’s results validate Steichen’s goal of building a team of photographers who were experts “not only in using a lens but in photographing with their hearts and minds.” Charles Kerlee did all of that. ✯
Kerlee used a large-format Fairchild K-20 camera to capture the header image above; here, he’s shown holding it. (National Archives)
An ordnanceman hauls a 1,000-pound bomb on the USS Yorktown’s flight deck as a Dauntless dive-bomber behind him prepares to take off. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
Pilots aboard the Hornet are briefed in one of the carrier’s ready rooms prior to a mid-January 1945 operation in the South China Sea. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
Elbow room is in short supply during a calisthenics session on the Yorktown. Avenger torpedo bombers appear at the top of the photo; Hellcat fighters at the bottom. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
His job complete for the moment, a signalman aboard the Yorktown in June 1943 watches an Avenger moments from touchdown. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
Motion stilled, crewmen in the Yorktown’s boiler room are poised at their controls in an image that highlights Kerlee’s attention to detail. Kerlee began his career in film but, as described in Mark Faram’s Faces of War: The Untold Story of Edward Steichen’s WWII Photographers, found himself drawn to still photography. “During this time I worked nights at my home and attended art school, studying and developing my photographic technique,” Kerlee wrote in his application to join the navy. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
A marine peers out of a battered Japanese oil storage tank on Kwajalein Island in the central Pacific, a few weeks after Marine and U.S. Army forces successfully captured it in February 1944. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
Crewmen relax on Hornet’s flight deck as they await the return of aircraft to the carrier—then steaming toward the Mariana Islands. Fighters from the Hornet and other carriers would soon face and wipe out waves of Japanese aircraft in a series of June 19, 1944, battles that became known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.” (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
Hellcat fighters surround a group of ordnancemen preparing bombs on Yorktown’s hangar deck in late 1943. Behind them, crewmen assemble to watch a film. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
A peaceful pair, Lieutenant (j.g.) H. Blake Moranville and Fighter Squadron 11’s mascot, Gunner, nap in a Hornet ready room in early January 1945. Days later, on January 12, Moranville—an ace credited with six kills—was shot down over Saigon and captured. He later successfully escaped to China. Man and dog had been inseparable before then. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
Pilot at the controls, crewmen prepare to unfold the wings of a Hellcat before its next mission. (Charles E. Kerlee/U.S. Navy)
This article was published in the December 2019 issue of World War II.