As most of you will recall, 1940s America is famous for its flamboyant and often risqué portraits of glamorous women in magazines and on billboards. During WWII, these images, whether photographs or illustrations, frequently found themselves pinned upon the barracks room walls, in the lids of foot lockers and maintenance workshops etc. of young servicemen in the US military. While the US Navy frowned upon the practice at the time, the US Army Air Forces accepted aircrew naming and painting a representation of these “pin-up” girls on the sides of their aeroplanes. This is certainly not something typically allowed in today’s US military, but it was a reflection of the times in a male-only fighting force, and served as a morale booster to the young men so far away from home and frequently facing mortal danger on a daily basis. There is a sense of nostalgia for the best of these images today; mostly amongst young men of course. However, a number of photographers have been producing images of women alongside vintage WWII aircraft attempting to recreate the best traditions of the past. Some succeed better than others of course, as there is a very fine line between glamour and gratuitous exploitation, and it’s very easy to tip into the latter without a careful sense of style. Photographer Christian Kieffer has proven himself very capable of recapturing the very best of 1940’s glamour, and has enjoyed considerable success in selling his beautifully produced calendars featuring these images. WarbirdsNews wanted to learn more about Kieffer, and our very own Moreno Aguiari sat down with him to talk about his company Elysium Multimedia which produces the Warbird Pinup Girls calendars.
WN: So tell me how you started this business?
Kieffer: Well I have been a warbird enthusiast since I was a child. My father is an avid World World II historian, but of course the aviators appealed to me the most. I’ve always wanted to be a fighter pilot myself, and the Flying Tigers appealed to me the most [then] I think, and they still do as an adult. When I became a photographer, I knew I wanted to do something to commemorate those guys. So this particular year coming up, it’s our fourth year as the Warbird Pin-Up Girls. We work together with my wife, who is a graphic and web designer, so we do this entirely ourselves. This year, we had a special tribute to the AVG. I found a P-40 with the proper markings, and hired a 600-pound Siberian tiger for the shot, which appears with our pin-up girl.
WN: [laughs] Where did you find a tiger?
Kieffer: I had to go into Hollywood, and found the animal trainer…. One of the things that makes us unique is that we don’t re-use aircraft. Everything that I’ve used is [also] a flight-ready airplane.
WN: Okay, okay.
Kieffer: So we do have a television show now, which is kind of a reality-based concept, where you get to watch the creation of the pin-up girl.
WN: Nice, nice, that’s a good idea.
Kieffer: You get to watch my photo shoots, and then you get to meet the pilots. And then we interview the pilots, and then we take the aircraft out for flight.
WN: I see.
Kieffer: My first edition features “Precious Metal”, the Reno Air Racer, which is really an exciting airplane, and we thought that would make some great footage. So it did really turn out well.
WN: Which network is it going to broadcast?
Kieffer: Right now it’s on our website, we’re shopping it right now, we have some interest.
Kieffer: I think the most amazing thing that I’ve found since I began doing this was the international response has just been amazing. …. Jim Beasley was one of the Horseman team originally, his Mustang lives right by my house. So I contacted him, and said I’d like to do try to do some retro photos with the aircraft, so he let me get access to it. And I thought, “well he knows a lot of guys that have these warbirds”, and I love the warbirds…. Obviously I know a lot about them since I was a kid… and I thought maybe it would be interesting to try and compile a collection, and then I thought ‘a calendar, why not? Try a calendar, and see how it goes.’ And I found out that people do buy calendars. I didn’t even know how that would go. Originally when I brought this up, I was thinking that a lot of people had done this already, and I didn’t even know, I didn’t look around to see who did it even before I did. And there really was no one doing it. There were a few guys who had played around with it, but I’m very much into the authenticity of the traditional pin-up girl. Everybody that looks at my work, they know that it’s not gratuitous, it’s not overly-sexualized, and there are no tattoos. We’re not part of the rockabilly pin-up group. We’re sort of trying to bring back what is the traditional pin-up girl from World War II.
WN: Where do you find the models? I mean everywhere you go, do you bring them with you, or you find them locally?
Kieffer: Well, 2014 will be the first year that we actually bring girls back. Everything up until then was all—
WN: Because there is a demand for them?
Kieffer: That’s right. Well that’s what I didn’t expect. I was gonna deliver new girls every year, but some guys are saying ‘Hey, we want to see her again.’ And so, 2014, I’ve [had] about half the girls come back, and half the girls are new. All the airplanes are new every year, so far. We’re gonna continue to use new aircraft.
WN: What will it take to bring you down to our wing [CAF Dixie Wing] and show the SBD, and the—we have Red Nose, an SBD – we have a Corsair and two Japanese aircraft: one-zero and one Kate.
Kieffer: Yeah? We’re thinking about [that] in the future … for 2015 … I think we’re going to do an Allies version, which will include the British Lancaster that was here [at the Military Aviation Museum air show]. They just signed on with me while they were at the show here, which was great.
WN: Gosh, we need to find an Italian airplane for you!
Kieffer: I would love [that]!
WN: He’s restoring one [Jerry Yagen], but I don’t think he’s gonna be ready for 2015. And other than that, there is nothing else but in museums. The only one left, I think, here in the U.S., is in the Smithsonian.
Kieffer: We need somebody to help us out. One of the things we didn’t really anticipate, was our Facebook presence has exploded. We’ve got [nearly 90,000] fans now… I never anticipated that kind of growth, so we’re getting response from all around the globe. We also contribute and we donate to the guys in the combat zones. And they really appreciate getting that little piece of Americana, which kinda brightens their day, so that’s another way that we give back. But, so one owner led to another from Jim which was the [P-51 Mustang] “Bald Eagle” here. [This] was my first aircraft….
WN: So very little is retouched?
Kieffer: There may have been an airplane in the back that we couldn’t [move], so we’ll take it out. I don’t do any photoshopping to the girls, I don’t do any photoshopping to the airplanes.
WN: So what about the light?
Kieffer: I work in almost exclusively natural light. A few images I might add a touch of fill [flash], or I might have a back-lit image where I … throw a strobe on it, but it’s very rare. I like natural light, and that’s what people like about my work, believe it or not. They’re so accustomed to seeing overly-lit commercial work, that this is very appealing to the eye.
WN: Trust me, I’m one of those. And that’s why, when I saw your page… ‘like, like, like.’ [laughs]
Kieffer: Thank you.
WN: That’s why I ask you, because this is actually this one right here (SEE ABOVE).
Kieffer: Actually it’s not. There’s two Double Trouble Two’s. This is not the one that’s owned by Gerald Yagen. This is—well, they’re both the same scheme, they look almost identical and many people think that’s the same airplane—it’s not. They have a different owner. And this one belonged to the Horseman team as well, back a few years ago, which I think they’ve disbanded now.
WN: What has been your favorite photo shoot?
Kieffer: My favorite photo shoot? Well, that’s hard to say. I mean, this was really interesting, because we had a live animal, which we’ll have a tiger in my next one, so I think that will jump to my new favorite, I hope so because of the P-40 as well.
WN: So what are you doing for the VMF-214 shoot?
Kieffer: Oh geez, I don’t know.
WN: How are you gonna find a black sheep? [laughs]
Kieffer: Yeah, that’s not a bad idea. I did just shoot Jim Toble’s Corsair here, we have two Corsairs in our collection [of images], and we do hope to one day work with Gerald Yagen’s as well. But at this point we’re working with people who work with us. Some people who charge money and some don’t. We prefer to try to get the people—
WN: So you were saying that your audience on Facebook is up ….. and they’re liking it—
Kieffer: We’re getting tremendous response—
WN: –and I say that as you have a very classy, tasteful calendar, and you put together warbirds, airplanes, beautiful sexy women, but not in a vulgar way. And you say that it’s part of your mission reminding—
Kieffer: Sure, and because you can read Italian, you should actually read my mission statement in the article, because it basically states that I’ve worked in media, I’ve worked in Hollywood filmmaking, I’ve done all this kind of stuff. We see so much gratuitous material coming at us on the television and in the movies, it’s been overdone. The idea of pushing the envelope is over. We’ve pushed it. There’s nowhere else to go. So what you need to [do] is remind yourself what a beautiful woman really is, and should be. The girls are not covered with tattoos. They’re not attitudes. They have beautiful hairdos. You know there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go back in time—
WN: Naturally beautiful.
Kieffer: Well we should go back to a time when people respected the way they look… I decided to go out on my own and show people and remind them.
WN: Now, do you do this full-time now?
Kieffer: Yes I do.
WN: Nice, wonderful.
Kieffer: My wife is also a big part of my project. What she does is—
WN: By the way, I like your web site design…
Kieffer: She’s very talented. She also works as a web designer full-time. But the other thing I want to point out is that she also does the majority of the casting. She finds the girls, and brings them to me. We decide together if they’re the right type of girl. Because we take the girls on location, normally I have girls with me. They have to be very accessible, and nice women—We don’t like girls with attitudes and stuff. The other thing is now, especially in the last two years, the wardrobe is being custom designed for us…. and made by designers, so it’s not something you can buy somewhere else. Much of this is custom-designed stuff. These pieces either come from a high-end contributor—we have lingerie designers in Europe that send us the work. We promote them, [and] they promote us.
WN: How long have you been doing this full time?
Kieffer: This is gonna be my [fifth] year now, that we’re in right now. So I started really in ’09.
WN: So your background is in photography?
Kieffer: Yes. I graduated from Southeast Center of Photographic Studies in Daytona Beach. I was hired by Disney.
WN: I lived in New Smyrna Beach for a year.
Kieffer: Sure, I just shot down there with—
WN: They have the shop down there, the B-17 is usually there, right?
Kieffer: Yep, yep.
Kieffer: ….. I am coming down to Tennessee to shoot the two P-47’s that are down there. And a Yak-9 is gonna come in and meet us, so I may be able to arrange to come south even further and do more work, which could go into ’15 or ’16.
WN: Let me work on that.
Kieffer: You should. I’m gonna shoot every bird in the country, you’ll see. ….We have a book coming this season. It will be a coffee table book. We …[will] be featuring images you don’t see in the calendar, and production work. So….I’m building residual income, coming from different kinds of product lines. This case you see? This company I just signed a licensing agreement with, we’ll have our own cases like this. These will go out to over 5000 retailers in the U.S. So this is another product, we do the cell phone cases. But all of these are exclusive designs to my company, they’re all my girls and you can’t buy them anywhere else. I do have a few wholesale distributors, Aircraft Spruce is one, Historic Sales is another. So they buy wholesale from me and distribute it. But I don’t—and won’t—ever go to like Walmart or Amazon. In fact you’ll notice there’s no bar code on my calendars, because I’m not going to destroy my work by going that commercial.
WN: Are these calendars produced here in the U.S.?
Kieffer: Yes, I actually print them in Pennsylvania. And you also see our contributors, our wardrobe contributors, this one, the first one—there’s always a production page that’s growing, the different designers. We want to make something—this girl’s outfit for instance was built from a Vargas print, original Vargas print, so we wanted to make it something that you could never buy in a store. We want to be unique and keep it that way.
WN: Its outstanding work, really I love it.
WarbirdsNews wants to thank Christian Kieffer very much for spending time with us. You should visit his website HERE and his Facebook page HERE to check out his work, and see what cool products he has available.