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dudler’s latest blog : the portrait not taken

dudler's latest blog : art, snap or reportage

The portrait not taken

7 Jul 2021 6:27AM  
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As photographers, some of us strive to take good portraits – others avoid people pictures at any cost. My own feeling is that on a good day, with the right subject and a following wind, I can deliver a reasonable result (and that’s a different thing from making a spectacular photograph, by the way).

There ought to be a good likeness of the inner person, at least once in each life, and I’m not sure that there always is. I am sometimes haunted by the shade of Lieutenant Commander Eugene Esmonde, having heard the story of his last flight many, many years ago.

You can look him up, and find that he won the Victoria Cross, Britain’s highest honour for bravery in the face of the enemy, for leading a torpedo attach on 12 February 1942. The previous day, he’d received the DSO for leading a carrier-based attack, at night, against the Bismarck.

The plan had been to attack under similarly-favourable conditions, but the German battleships Scarnhorst, Gneisau and the battle cruiser Prinz Eugen had left harbour at night, to run the English Channel by day. A daylight attack was ordered. Flying in Fairey Swordfish biplanes, with a maximum speed of 138mph, Esmonde and his squadron faced not only the battleships but a small fleet of smaller craft defending them, and heavy fighter cover. To launch a torpedo successfully, the Swordfish had to fly low, slowly, straight and level towards their target.

Each aircraft had a crew of three: of the 18 airmen, only five survived the day. None of the torpedoes hit their targets. Admiral Otto Ciliax in the Scharnhorst described ‘The mothball attack of a handful of ancient planes, piloted by men whose bravery surpasses any other action by either side that day.’

‘He knew what he was going into,’ wrote Tom Gleave, the RAF commander of Manston airfield in Kent, from which Esmonde took off. ‘But it was his duty. His face was tense and white. It was the face of a man already dead. It shocked me as nothing has done since.’

You probably know Don McCullin’s picture of a US soldier’s ‘thousand yard stare’ – but I wonder if even McCullin could have captured that look… The pictures you can find of Esmonde show a round-faced young man, and they do not, I think, express his full character.

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