She Flew Solo

Photographer Anne Noggle takes flight in museum retrospective

In the last self-portrait she made before her death, photographer Anne Noggle has all but disappeared. Her hand, its skin creased, thin and pale, holds a white mask cast from her face and filled with glass eyes, their gaze turned down. Even in those empty eyes, the sadness and toughness of age and wear comes through, heavy and hard.

By then 80 years old, Noggle had spent nearly half a century taking photographs, first of familiar places, then familiar faces, a few of strangers, then that most familiar of all—her own. The story she'd captured was one she often referred to as the "saga of the fallen flesh," calling it "gravity seeking gravity, the something in us that wants to die." She had a fascination with aging faces and the lifetimes etched into them, which also had to do with reclaiming notions of power and beauty for those often cast-off aging women. As Katherine Ware, New Mexico Museum of Art's curator of photography, dug into Noggle's life for a retrospective of her work to open April 2, she asked a niece still living in Albuquerque, where Noggle made her home for the second half of her life, whether her aunt had ever photographed her.

"No," Ware recounts the niece saying. "I was too young."

Noggle was 38 when she began her photography work while enrolled at the University of New Mexico for a bachelor's and then master's degree, and she still found time to become the New Mexico Museum of Art's first photography curator, adding some 700 images to the museum's collection and notably co-curating a traveling exhibit of women photographers, and receive a Guggenheim Fellowship, three National Endowment for the Arts awards, and an honorary doctorate from UNM. She was also a lecturer at UNM and the author of three books, two on female air service pilots (first the WASPs from the US and then their Russian equivalent), and one, Silver Lining, of her photographs, including a series of portraits of couples for which the book is named.

The list of influences she credited in her Master of Arts thesis runs far shorter than her explanation of the camera gear she chose to use. Her debts are to one photographer, Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose work, she wrote, so overwhelmed her that she stopped taking photos for several days; to one professor, Van Deren Coke, for teaching her to see the "vast gulf between what we think we see and what is actually there," and who would write in the foreword for Silver Lining how he had lamented her choice to shift from art history to photography, but that her eye for faces and her ability to capture the essence of a personality made that choice obvious and inevitable. But first, she listed the poet Robert Creeley, who taught her that "earthshaking events, although they appear to be the sum total of man's nature, don't have the significance or the reality inherent in the multitude of seemingly insignificant events taking place everywhere, all the time."

Those seemingly insignificant places and events dominated her work for the following decades, which she spent in living rooms and bedrooms, in intimate spaces, capturing the small glimpses of lives that somehow render them huge and timeless. Flying solo, she piloted her own work quietly and often alone but always with an eye on a broader stroke of meaning, and often reasserting the purpose and beauty of women as they age in ways that, decades later, we still need to be reminded of.

In the years since her death in 2005, Noggle's work has only slipped further from the appreciation and recognition it's due. Her life story as a woman who lived in radical feminist ways before "feminist" was a title anyone wore, who pioneered a life for herself in so many ways, who made bold and intensely personal photographic work her second career after 11 years as a pilot, has also slipped into the abyss. In this exhibition, Assumed Identities: Photographs by Anne Noggle, she's reintroduced to the state she chose as her home.

The story goes that Noggle saw Amelia Earhart while she was growing up near the Chicago suburb where she was born, and that Earhart inspired her to pursue a career as a pilot. Her mother, who also worked, supported her in that effort, and Noggle had a pilot's license before she'd even finished high school. She went on to become a Women's Airforce Service Pilot (WASP) during World War II, eventually becoming a captain in the US Air Force. For years, that was her career. She flew in Europe, became a stunt pilot, and worked as a crop duster, loading her own plane with DDT to spray over the fields. After lung issues—likely caused by the insecticide she dusted crops with—led to her discharge in her late 30s on disability, she took her GI Bill and went right to New Mexico, a place she'd visited as a pilot and knew she wanted to make her home. There, she enrolled at UNM to study art history, convincing her mother, Agnes, and sister, Mary, to relocate to the state as well.

At the time, curators had to make their own slides and needed darkroom skills to do it, so Noggle had to take a photography class. It shifted her course.

"I fell passionately in love with another machine, the camera," she said in a speech to the class of 1983 at the Portland School of Art in Maine. She saw this new machine demand the same qualities as the planes she'd flown: independence, optimism and dumb courage.

"Like the flying machine, you have to be attentive to the mechanics of it; then you are again free in your mind to act and think about images," she said. "You see through the viewfinder but also through your experiences and through whatever synthesis your mind has formed from those experiences. Living, in itself, doesn't have a value for you as an artist unless what you have thought and done—the fright and delight and the gin and sin and children and morning light and all the rest—ride in your insides and ferment and come together."

Assumed Identities explores that process for her, as she first turned her camera on life around her, photographing her own bed, her car with her dog walking alongside it, a rest area, a row of garage doors, a dam, her mother and sister seated in La Posada, the offices at the UNM art department.

"I wanted to show her finding her way to her voice—and she does that pretty quickly," Ware says.This first revisitation of Noggle's work since her death mounts some of the nearly 100 pieces of her work in the museum's collection. Ware aims to get out of the way and let her speak for herself, drawing much of the interpretive material planned from Noggle's own words.

"I wanted to really just show her in her own right, and not tell people what to think," Ware says.

In those early years, Noggle shot almost nothing and no one she didn't know very well, she said during a lecture at the New Mexico Museum of Art in 1986, but she saw a message in that. "You don't have to go to Taos or Guadalajara to find a photograph. It is all around us, images all the time, waiting for us to see them," she said. "We have to keep our eyes open in places we've been before."

She was speaking in particular about "Artifact," a photograph in which she captures her mother's hands, the only piece of her visible outside the folds of a velvety black dress she's wearing, with a stack of rings sparkling on the finger of one hand and her dentures in the other. Her mother had also been photographed in the shower through the distorting glass of the shower door, and seated on the toilet, wearing a dressing gown, her hair covered in the billow of a shower cap; she called her tolerance for her daughter's photographs a gift to her, but she never wanted to see them.

Increasingly, Noggle turned the camera on herself, in part to spare those she knew from the rigors of posing to visually create an idea she had in mind. But toying with her camera and taking photos of herself also became a way of staving off boredom during her frequent drives between Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

The extremes she went to only became more pronounced. Images show her leaping from her hot tub, wearing only her eyeglasses and bracketed by appreciative young men, curled on a rainforest floor near Seattle, and submerged in Cochiti Lake, adorned only in a string of pearls. She often flashed the camera at glimpses of her nude body, and sometimes stood full frontal to it, naked against a canyon backdrop or holding her dog to her pendulous and bare breasts.

"They're playful, but there's meaning to it too, and sometimes taking oneself very seriously is not the best way to get across what you want to say," she said in the 1986 museum lecture. "I think that a little humor in with it, even though it's bittersweet, says more than it does when you take yourself very seriously, because you can get over the sentiment and other things."

She didn't pity people who flinched away from her images and criticized those unable to face the realities of nude and aging flesh.

"People tell me that the photographs of me are not in any way flattering. They are not meant to be. They are
supposed to be real."

That was particularly true of a series of self-portraits she made in 1975, shortly after choosing to get a face-lift. She'd undergone two lung surgeries to treat emphysema that had at times left her unable to breathe or eat, but she felt that the procedures had aged her prematurely. In the days shortly following the surgery, Noggle turned the camera on herself, posing in her garden with a model plane behind her shoulder, to recall her history as a pilot, and a rose to her lips. Stitches ring her still-puffy eyes. It's a strange paradox, the face she's just had surgically altered to amend its flaws captured in its most battle-scarred moments.

"For someone who's so interested in aging, it's hard for me to explain about my face-lift. … I've always been fascinated by something about my face, and it's interesting to see the changes and reverse them but at the same time see that they're taking place anyway," she said in a later interview. "If I am shown in my face-lift as attempting to stave off the visible aging process, it is also an indication of what an exercise in futility that is."

She deemed those who wouldn't want to be photographed as they aged because time had weathered how they once knew themselves to look "small-spirited people."

When asked about the difficulty of the face-lift series—from a viewer's perspective—in a 1993 interview for Art Journal, in which photography curator Anne Wilkes Tucker points out, "Those are tough pictures. I've watched people turn away from them," Noggle replied, "Well, they probably turn away from life too, and from their own mirrors."

"I like older faces, not because of aging itself, but rather the look of the face, the revelation of life, and the conflict between what was and what they are now," she told Tucker. "That interests me, not the idea of aging itself."

She'd likely have said similar things about feminism. What interested her was living her life the way she wanted to, as a pilot and a photographer. She was less concerned with the political gesture her life made than she was with simply living it.

"She's not talking the liberated talk," Ware says, "but she was living it the whole time. She was living it before the movement started."

While Noggle was recovering from those lung surgeries, an aspiring photographer moved in next door to her and began taking any excuse to spend time with her, to contract her contagious, childlike curiosity for the world and her enthusiasm for photography.

"I just wanted to be in her presence, and she knew that, and she liked it," says Jim Holbrook, then a self-described "dumb kid from a small town in Ohio." "I helped her do stuff she wasn't able to do for herself and would do stuff for her no one else would do."

The surgeries left her, he says, with scars around her rib cage, as though someone had clipped her angel wings. He'd come over to wash her plate glass windows or talk about photography, and she would spread her photographs across the floor around the recliner where she was convalescing. Her advice to him was to go to school if he wanted to do anything with his photography, and so he did—at UNM, where she was teaching, and she became a mentor to him and an advocate for his work. Her classroom on the first day was often encircled with students hoping to snag a spot in the class when someone else dropped out, he recalls.

Their friendship continued for more than 30 years and often saw him hauling her gear and even standing in as a human tripod for her, snapping the shutter on photos she'd set up. "But," he's quick to clarify, "we are told what to do when we point the camera at Anne."

The epigraphs Noggle wrote in her books trended toward cheeky, sending "a passing kiss to the photographers who have liked or not liked my work, for they too have had a hand in shaping it," at the start of Silver Lining. But at the beginning of For God, Country, and the Thrill of It, on WASPs, she sends the passing kiss to history, and to Holbrook, gratitude "for his unstinting help and encouragement."

His Albuquerque home is still laced with traces of her—a bronze cast of her face, a poster from a museum exhibit that features "Reminiscence," a portrait of her and her sister with their hands at either side of their faces, pulling the skin taut—"as though we could take these masks off our faces and reveal some cute youthful thing," she said at the 1986 lecture at the museum—her gold-plated dog tags, more than 30 hours of video from interviews she conducted with Russian female pilots that Holbrook assisted her with, and box after box of her gelatin silver prints and contact sheets.

During an interview with one of the Russian pilots, the woman she was interviewing asked Noggle if she had any children.

"No. I have some boys, like this one," Noggle said, gesturing to Holbrook, who was holding her video camera to record the conversation. "Young men are wonderful."

Their partnership saw him joining her on overseas trips, not just the half-dozen she made for the book on Russian female pilots, but to Italy to see Renaissance masters, and to Eastern Europe just months after the Berlin Wall came down. They had the kind of friendship that meant finishing one another's sentences and, on several occasions, dialing one another simultaneously, so he picked up the phone receiver to call her only to hear her already saying, "Hello?" In the end, he says, following her "seemed like the logical thing to do."

"When I think about her, the whole world suddenly just gets expansively huge, and the sky gets bluer," he says.

He fills in what others can only speculate. Yes, she was gay. And yes, there were lonely years in which she believed she'd never find someone to love after those she had loved before had died. From a white sheet of paper scrawled with notes, he recalls the stories that shaped her, the brushes with fame and celebrities, and the pull of her friendship and gravitational tug of her that was so potent he left off his own work for a decade and just assisted in making hers happen.

Though she never wanted to rehash the past in her personal life, always plowing ahead beyond any disputes and hurt feelings to issue the next dinner invitation and seek out the next adventure, he saw her seeking out the sky time and again, in one form or another. She offered to pay for flying lessons for him, likely so she could regain access to the air, and in their many trips to the Soviet Union, he watched her seamlessly step across the language barrier to find a commonality with women who had also served and risked their lives. There was a piece of her that never ceased to be a pilot, to seek out chances to return to that version of herself, the one that could spot a sleek bomber and covet its speed, knowing how it felt. She wasn't sentimental about it, Holbrook says—she didn't look back on it with some gleam of sweetness and kindness that wasn't there. But she did have a longing for those days, for the fun and the thrill of it.

"She did things that were real, that she actually did before there was feminism, before the feminist movement happened. She didn't call herself a feminist or anything that came along in the early '70s. She'd already done all that stuff," Holbrook says. "She didn't think about, 'I'm a woman and I'm doing something that's going to be unique.' I don't think any of that occurred to her."

When she opened her address to the 1983 class from the Portland School of Art in Maine, Noggle said, "I have been thinking about you … and what I could tell you that might come back to you at some time when you especially needed a lift. In truth I didn't know whether to talk about art or peanut butter sandwiches! They both feed us. The real feast is life itself."

Assumed Identities: Photographs by Anne Noggle
New Mexico Museum of Art
107 W Palace Ave., 476-5072
Opens Saturday, April 2
Public reception at 5:30 pm Friday, April 1

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