“The saga of fallen flesh” is how Anne Noggle described the aging process she spent her photography career documenting. Noggle’s interest in photographing older women holds a place in the canon of American photography that few have sought to match. Young women have an easy beauty photographed ceaselessly, but Noggle had little interest in them. "I find young faces a tabula rasa, nothing is written there,” she said. “They are empty until they reach their 40s. Then they become photographable.
Noggle came to New Mexico to study art history at the University of New Mexico after her years (and similarly pioneering career) as a pilot came to a premature end due to lung surgery, the result of her brief stint doing crop-dusting work. Discovering photography while at UNM, her own aging, her mother’s and those around her became her subject. Her approach was straightforward, but not cold. Her photographs relate empathy, not sympathy. Noggle’s greatness was her ability to master one of the most difficult, and rarely attempted, feats in photography by creating work that is not really about “the other.” Noggle’s portraits often look like they are of her, if she was that other person.
A prime example is her series on elderly female pilots. Noggle photographed American Women Airforce Service Pilots (her former compatriots in WWII), and then not long after the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Airwomen (nicknamed “Night Witches” by the Nazis receiving the business end of their bombing raids). What is remarkable is how Noggle captures their similarity not in their uniforms or posing, but in their expressions. On opposite sides of the Cold War for most of their lives, they could easily be substituted for one another. Noggle captures the stories that each woman has etched in their face from long lives lived in vastly different places with similar results.
The new book Flight of Spirit: The Photographs of Anne Noggle is a brilliant, though by no means exhaustive, collection of some of Noggle’s finest work. Rich in the dusty zones of now-discontinued Plus-X film, her portraits themselves now show another level of aging. Her interspersed poetry is also a nice touch, breaking up the collections. In total, Flight of Spirit stands as a definitive record of one of the great photographers of the 20th century.