Labor of Love: Capturing Veteran Leather

By Scott Spangler on September 7th, 2015

clement 1When John Slemp came to the JetWhine.com lunch at EAA AirVenture 2015, he carried with him a large flat package that was maybe 20 by 24 inches by an inch deep and wrapped in brown paper. At such gatherings, most people just show up with their appetites, and as we later learned, John did, too, and it was wrapped in brown paper.

John is a commercial photographer with more than two decades of experience who, since 2001, has specialized in aviation. But his commercial work pays for his labor of love, photographing the decorated veteran leather flight jackets from conflicts past. And when they are still with us, and able to sit for his camera, the veterans who wore the iconic U.S. Army Air Force A-2 and U.S. Navy G-2 flight jackets. In the brown paper were several mounted prints of these spectacular images.

So far he’s photographed 31 pieces of veteran leather, and when he reaches his goal of 50, he plans to publish a book that will really be about, he said, the veterans who wore the jackets pictured. The Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, the National Naval Aviation Museum, and others have opened their closets to the project that began at a meeting of EAA Chapter 690 in Lawrenceville, Georgia, with the jacket pictured above. (You can see more at John’s website, Aerographs Aviation Photography website.)

albert mcmahan b-17 tg At a chapter meeting John met Gordon Clement, a corporate pilot based in nearby Atlanta. In talking, Clement said he possessed his uncle’s A-2, decorated with a yellow bomb for each of 50 missions he flew as a B-24 top turret gunner. The photo shoot never happened because Gordon’s cancer returned AND claimed his life a few short months later. “At the funeral,” John said, “Gordon’s son Zack came up and said that his dad really wanted the photo shoot to happen,” and he brought the A-2 to the next chapter meeting.

John photographs each jacket on a piece of backlighted white Plexiglas to give each image a clean background that visually isolates each jacket so it dominates the eye’s of the beholder. Studio lighting is arranged to best illuminate the jacket’s details, and a MamiyaLeaf CREDO 60, a medium-format digital camera captures them at an intimate level. “When I open up the files in PhotoShop, they are 350-megabyte, 16-bit images,” John explained, adding that he has to buy a new computer because his 6-year-old big Mac laptop is choking on these gargantuan files.

The seed for John’s aviation interest was planted during his peripatetic life as an Army brat. “I tell people I had 13.5 years prior service before I joined the Army after college (“I wanted to fly, but my eyes didn’t pass muster.”),” he explains, adding that was his age when his dad retired as a Green Beret. When he was with the 82nd Airborne, the family would watch their father jump, and when he was posted to Okinawa in the mid-1960s, they’d have Sunday brunch at Kadena Air Force Base and watch, with their faces pressed against the chain link fence, the jets taking off for Vietnam.

John decided to specialize in aviation photography back when he was still shooting film. He was teaching another photographer the Zone System of exposure, and the subject was a DC-3 he found at Griffin Airport outside of Atlanta. (One of those images led to his Aerographs logo.). Making some prints of several images, the interest of customers and other photographers led him to reconsider specializing.

lgen rp keller usmcIt is a decision he doesn’t regret. “When I hung out my shingle as an aviation photographer, all of these aviation doors started opening up, It’s really been a wonder.” John’s infectious and outgoing personality and unmistakable passion for his aviation subjects was certainly welcomed by the doorkeepers, from Air & Space magazine to the aviation museums, to associations like Women in Aviation International and AOPA, which is planning a spread on his veteran leather project in its November issue.

If there has been a consequence or casualty of his visual labor of love, it’s been his desire to become a pilot. He started training several years ago, and he has 2.5 hours in his logbook. The finances didn’t quite work out. And when it came decision time, the five-figure investment in his medium format digital camera won the tabular pro-and-con debate.

John is now working through the final details of shooting the veteran leather flight jackets at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. “I believe they have Jimmy Stewart’s jacket. If at all possible, I’d be over the moon to shoot it, because he was such a class guy in so many ways.”

He also welcomes veteran leather subjects from anyone who possesses original A-1 and G-2 flight jackets, “especially if they have artwork on the front and back,” he said. “The condition is irrelevant. Don’t polish them. Don’t treat them with any leather preservative. Wear and age are part of their story.” And during the photo shoot he’ll collect all the information available about the veteran to whom the jacket was issued and his military service. You can reach John through the Aerographs website or at john@aerographs.com. – Scott Spangler, Editor

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