Portrait of Colonel Charles McGee

I was fortunate to be able to attend the 2012 “Salute to Veterans” airshow one year ago during Memorial Day weekend in Columbia, Missouri. The airshow featured airplane designs dating from World War I along with modern aircraft. Numerous active military and retired veterans attended the airshow and I had the privilege to photograph one of the most distinguished attendees, Charles McGee.

Colonel Charles E. McGee earned his wings in 1943 as a Tuskegee airman and flew fighter aircraft during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Upon retirement, he held a record of 409 fighter combat missions and earned numerous awards including the Distinguished Flying Cross (with two Oak Leaf Clusters), Bronze Star, Legion of Merit (with one Oak Leaf Cluster), Air Medal (with 25 oak leaf clusters) and the French Legion d’honneur.

The whole group of 994 Tuskegee Airmen were presented a Congressional Gold Medal in 2006 for their remarkable service and heroism during World War II. Perhaps their greatest achievement was the impetus their actions provided to desegregate the U.S. military.

The Scene

Tuskegee fighter pilots often flew the P-51 Mustang. Jeff Maples’ P-51 “Archie” was present at the airshow so I made arrangements to photograph Colonel McGee beside Archie. Archie was located on the far side of the tarmac so a vehicle and driver were arranged to drive the 92 year old McGee across the tarmac the next morning.

Early the next morning, I transported my 4inch x 5inch view camera, lenses, heavy wooden tripod, black & white film, 1-degree light meter and various other items across the huge tarmac. I explored different compositions with a helper who posed patiently as McGee.

I finished nearly an hour before the vehicle carrying Col. McGee was scheduled to arrive. I looked around for a place to purchase coffee when the 92 year old McGee walked up to me smiling. My-oh-my, no wonder he accomplished so much in his life! He arrived at the airshow early and walked across the enormous tarmac while the vehicle that had been arranged to drive him sat waiting for his arrival.


The P-51 airplane, Archie, had a highly reflective surface and provided an opportunity to obtain a view of Col. McGee as he was on that day as well as a glimpse of the man from years past. Of course, that couldn’t be captured literally but it could be accomplished figuratively by photographing the man and his reflection in the P-51 fighter.

My goal was to concentrate on the man and keep the airplane in the background. I seated McGee where the morning sunlight gently illuminated one side of his face and chest. The surface of the airplane reflected plenty of skylight so McGee’s reflection was strong.

Colonel McGee was placed behind the wing and fairly close to the ground so several structural lines of the P-51 seemed to reach upward toward the sky. As is commonly done for portraits, I used a lens that is longer than a “normal” focal length to be certain the subject’s facial features were not distorted. A “normal” focal length for a 4inch x 5inch camera is 150mm so I chose a 210 mm lens. I composed fairly tightly to exclude most of the plane and emphasize McGee.

I selected a shutter speed of 1/15 sec and an f-stop of f/32. I normally expose only one film for the majority of my photographs but five films were exposed for this portrait. I thought multiple exposures were appropriate since 1/15 sec was a fairly long exposure and inadvertent movement would blur the image.


I evaluated each 4inch x 5inch film with the naked eye and all looked good. The best film was scanned at my usual resolution of 5,000 ppi and 16-bit pixel depth to produce a black & white digital image of nearly one GB in size.

The gray level histogram of the scanned image contained pixels across the full tonal range from pure black (gray level = 0) to pure white (gray level = 255).

A Levels Adjustment Layer was opened in PhotoShop and the image was explored by moving the black and white sliders various amounts. I ultimately decided to move the black slider from 0 (pure black) to 24.

This increased black clipping (more pixels became pure black) for numerous areas of the airplane. The areas were located at the edges of metal sheets and at the airplane’s wing over McGee’s left shoulder. Those areas logically are quite dark in bright sunlight so decreasing their texture slightly was acceptable. Moving the black slider also increased black clipping under McGee’s cap and shirt collar. Reducing texture in those areas also was fine since they logically are quite dark in bright sunlight.

The white slider of the Levels histogram was kept at 255.

Next, a Curve Adjustment Layer was opened. The primary goal for this adjustment was to increase visual separation of McGee and his shadow from the airplane. Said another way, the goal was to increase front-to-back depth in the image. A curve adjustment offered a convenient way to achieve this because the airplane was brighter than McGee’s shirt, cap and shadow.

Bright tones of the curve were bent slightly upward to increase their brightness whereas dark tones of the curve were bent slightly downward to decrease their brightness. The changes were subtle but quite effective at pulling McGee toward the foreground and pushing the P-51 toward the background.

Lastly, local retouching was performed using PhotoShop’s Burn, Dodge and Clone tools. The original image layer (image from the scanner) was duplicated, named “Retouch” and placed directly above the original layer to contain the retouching edits.

The first areas to be retouched were dark spots within bright metal areas of the P-51. Areas that were lightened were those that distracted visual attention from McGee or structural lines of the airplane.

The next area to receive retouching was McGee’s eyeglasses. It was important to be able to see into McGee’s eyes and reflections from his eyeglasses made it difficult to see beyond the glass. Reducing the brightness of the strongest reflections helped the portrait feel more personal.

Finally, three areas of text that helped identify the nature of the man being photographed were retouched. Burning and Dodging were used to emphasize “Charles McGee” on his name badge, the words “Honored Guest” on his cap and the words “Audacity & Strength” on his badge. It was important to see these words clearly and they are easily seen in a suitably sized print (10inch x 8inch) even though they are not easily visible in the tiny image shown here.

My brief interaction with Charles McGee gave me the impression that he is an intelligent, warm and accomplished man who has incredible energy. I tried to capture those attributes in his portrait and hope that I succeeded.

I made a 20inch x 16inch print and framed it in natural wood. The print was presented to Colonel McGee this year during the banquet of the 2013 “Salute to Veterans” airshow. I felt proud to produce a portrait of such a fine man who brought so much honor to our country through his audacity & strength.


If you look at the photographs on my website, it is obvious that people are seldom included in my photographs. The photo discussed today was the first formal portrait I have attempted and comments you might have about the image, the photographic approach used for it, the composition or its workup will be appreciated. For a slightly better view of this photograph, visit here. To see other photographs from the airshow, visit the gallery, “Salute to Veterans Airshow”.

Randall R Bresee