You’re still a child, asleep in your upstairs bedroom. You’re probably dreaming you can fly… but the tranquility is suddenly ripped apart by a thundering roar outside your window.
You draw back the curtain to look out and, right there, literally metres away, is the nose of an Aérospatiale Alouette helicopter with your father inside motioning that it’s time you got up. Beyond, the busy comings and goings of Orange Air Force Base, Southern France, stretch into the distance.
That incredible moment is persistent childhood memory for French photographer and graphic artist Manolo Chrétien.
His father, Brigadier General Jean-Loup Chrétien served as a fighter pilot and test pilot in the Armée de l’Air, before becoming France’s first astronaut.
A lifelong love of aviation
Young Manolo grew up on air force bases, mesmerised by the speeding, gleaming jets his father’s colleagues flew – and imbued with a lifelong love of aviation.
This passion has surfaced again and again in his photography, beautifully coupled with his fascination with surface textures and the stories they tell. You can see more here.
Now, Chrétien’s most recent exhibition echoes that early, memorable encounter with the front of an Alouette.
So, if your actual or virtual trail takes you through Geneva (Genève), Switzerland, search out the MB&F M.A.D. Gallery (‘Mechanical Art Devices’ Gallery) and their ‘Nose Art’ exhibition by Manolo Chretien.
The photographs draw on his childhood where aircraft were the everyday scenery, and are influenced by a photo he took near Tuscon in 2008) – nose to nose with a stored prop-liner that seemed to be smiling back at him.
Star of Switzerland
The image was so striking that he created a whole body of work on the same theme, restricting each image to the circular confines of an aircraft fuselage. The results are certainly arresting and, true to Chrétien’s other work, each nose photo tells a story.
Most striking is ex-TWA Lockheed L-049 Constellation ‘Star of Switzerland’ (N90831, originally 42-94549, cn 1970) which is peppered with the memory of a hailstorm encounter at some point in her long life – an unforgettable flight for one long-forgotten flight crew, perhaps?
Preserved at Pima Air & Space Museum, N90831 is the oldest Constellation still in existence. She was built as a USAAF C-69 during WW2 and delivered in April 1945. She was then sold to Hughes Tool and converted to L-049-46-25 civil configuration for TWA and dubbed ‘Star of Switzerland’.
TWA disposed of the airliner in 1965 and she went through a short series of owners before being stored in 1970 and winding up at Pima A&SM. In 1980, ex-TWA staff spent over 7000 man-hours restoring her classic silver-top TWA livery for display. (Thanks to Paul Zogg for the back-story. Click for archive photos.)
For the technically minded, Chrétien works with a Hasselblad H4D-60 and a Canon EOS 5Ds R. Each of his Nose Art photos was taken with the help of a step ladder and (more often than not) a forklift.
He says his best moment was getting face to face with Concorde. ‘This amazing plane is a legend,’ he says. ‘When you go up to the beak of this fantastic metal bird it’s high and very impressive to realise just how fluid the design of that machine inspired in 1960 by a northern Gannet bird is!’
Yup. And the exhibition reveals other design secrets too.
I bet you never thought there would be a family resemblance between Lockheed’s Constellation and C-130 Hercules, did you? (Even Kelly Johnson was apparently taken aback when first shown the company’s ‘ugly duckling’.)
But when you look at Manolo Chrétien’s photos of both, there it is – across the main line of the cockpit glazing – as clear-cut as the Kennedy family jaw.
From Grumman Tracker to Dassault Rafale, Manolo Chrétien’s ‘Nose Art photos are arresting, fascinating and thoroughly engaging.
And, as the old saying goes – I may not know much about art, but I know what I like!
By the way, the Feature Photo (top) shows Lockheed C-141B Starlifter 67-0013, formerly of the 305th and 514th Air Mobility Wings, USAAF, and now preserved at Pima Air & Space Museum.