Photographing the Backs of Sailors’ Heads

It’s 1982 and I’ve got a gig on a Navy aircraft carrier, the USS Ranger. I climb aboard at Coronado Island across the San Diego Bay and get off seven days later in Honolulu, Hawaii. Three or four layers below deck I set up a portable portrait studio: three strobes on stands with a battery pack—two with umbrellas and one to spot the painted backdrop. I have an adjustable posing stool and a Beattie Coleman Portronic camera with a 100-foot roll of 70-millimeter color negative film. The Portronic sits on a roller tripod and has a slot for cards to ID the negatives. Approximately 3,000 men, who for the most part are still just boys, are slated for their yearbook portraits. These lucky sailors will hopefully purchase prints for the proud parents and girls in waiting back home in Dudvillie. I’ve borrowed the equipment from the storeroom of a portrait studio where I worked for a while and somehow ended up with my own key. I’m hoping to make a bundle.

The USS Ranger is a bustling city of men, many of whom live like cave dwellers and go for weeks at a time without seeing natural light. I think they’re all a bunch of idiots, but I can be quick to judge and tend to bristle around people in uniform. Enclosed in gloppy gray gloom, everything is narrow and riveted together. Heavy metal clanks echo from the walls but voices remain stationary. I eat with the officers in the mess hall and I’ve gone exploring and been lost three times by the second day.

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