When many people think of Pin-Up Art from the 1940s and 50s in this day and age, they often will think of Alberto Vargas’s work, which goes from the classic PinUp look to the dawn of the Playboy style art. However, if you were to ask someone from World War 2 into the early 50s, you’ll find they remember a different type of PinUp: The Petty Girl. The Petty Girl was not just art for the fancy of men in magazines, but she was a symbol for a homesick GIs at war and a metaphor for the innocence of the times. The Petty Girl captured the classic PinUp look that has, in my opinion, never been matched since and it’s all due to one talented artist, George Petty.
George Petty lived from 1894 to 1975, and lived most of his life in Chicago. Petty grew up around Photography from his father George Petty III, a photographer at the time. It was in his father’s shop that he learned how to Airbrush art. Wanting to continue in art after High School, Petty went to the Académie Julian to further study his love of art until the breakout of World War 1. Returning to Chicago (later moving to Arizona), he gained status as an airbrush retoucher and freelance artist, painting the covers of magazines and calendar gals in the early 1920s. It was in 1933 when he joined the men’s magazine Esquire along with opening his own studio that the Petty Girl was born.
The Petty Girl soon became a sensational hit in Esquire, with Petty painting middle spreads and calendars for the magazine on a regular basis. Showcasing an innocence and playful side in a time where America was exiting the Depression and entering World War 2, the Petty Girl became a symbol of the happier American lifestyle, even if it was geared towards appealing men. The Petty Girl was defined by often subtlety dis proportioned legs being longer than normal to accentuate the curves of women’s legs, and their heads slightly smaller to give the body a slightly larger look. These slight exaggerations set the Petty Girl apart from any Pinups at the time, and set a new standard for the rising type of art. The Petty Girl was almost always on the phone, a feature which many became the gag among many jokes about who she was always talking to on the other end. The Petty Girl was always innocent, sometimes not even noticing her sex appeal, and often gave the feel of a ‘Girl Next Door’ type of warm inviting smile. One major note to point out is the Petty Girl’s modesty; she never revealed everything but chose to tease. George Petty was a genius in capturing that fine line between too little and too much, choosing to have the Petty Girl always somehow covered where it counts. Be it a shine from a sheer dress or an outstretched arm, the Petty Girl never gave away too much.
The Petty Girl was well loved in the United States, but soon she would head off to war with millions of servicemen. During World War 2, the United States was thrust into combat on two fronts: The European Theater and the Pacific Theater. Millions of men from across the country were sworn into service and sent abroad to fight for America after the tragic bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For many of these American men, it was their first time away from home, and most were just reaching 18 and 19 years old. Naturally, with the PinUp in both art and photography booming in that era, the PinUp traveled with these boys and covered the walls of their makeshift homes on the battle fields giving them a pleasant reminder of what’s waiting for them back home. Photos of top name celebrities to artwork from all types of artists at the time, the PinUp was kept near and dear to the GI soldier and often helped him drift off to sleep giving him a boost of moral when he needed it most. Petty’s artwork filled many of the foot lockers and walls of the barracks in many parts of the war, but there was one specific area where Petty’s art stood out and started one of the biggest artistic movements in the war: Nose Art. One of the most recognizable forms of Petty’s work, Nose Art wasn’t even done by Petty himself but was rather copies of his work done by other artists.
The first recorded Nose Art painting was done in 1913 before the breakout of World War 1. Starting out as a way for friendly pilots to identify each other and personalize their planes, Nose Art was the painting of some graphic on the forward section (or nose) of the aircraft. As World War 1 raged, Nose Art became more extravagant, but still focused on fancy squadron art. It wasn’t till World War 2 that the true Nose Art was born. From the popular subject of animals to squadron insignia and symbols, cartoon characters to real life people, the appeal of Nose Art has often been said to be both the subject on the art and the ‘unofficially’ accepted yet ‘officially’ discouraged status it held. During the height of World War 2, Nose Art artists were in high demand in every Army Air Force squadron (Nose Art was prohibited on US Navy Aircraft), with Army Air Force commanders allowing the nose Art in an effort to boost crew morale. Nose Art found its way on Bombers, Fighters, Cargo aircraft, and everything in between. Some where elaborate, some were minimal, but it was here that the PinUp art took part in the war. The PinUp Nose Art became a fast favorite for pilots and their crews, with every major PinUp artist’s work featured in every imaginable variation on the nose of thousands of aircraft. Often painted by civilian artists or the occasional talented servicemen, the Petty Girl was soon taking to the skies and heading closer and closer to Germany and Japan with each battle.
One of the most famous Petty Nose Art works of all time was a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress which carried the name ‘Memphis Belle.’ The Memphis Belle and her crew became celebrity heroes back home upon being one of the first crews to complete 25 missions in Europe, which was at the time the service required for the crewmen to get a ticket back home (this was later increased to 50 missions). Upon completion of the 25 missions, the crew was sent home, with the Memphis Belle to do a multi state tour drive in support of buying War Bonds. The Nose Art on the Memphis Belle was one of Petty’s works featured in Esquire Magazine in April of 1941, which was selected by George Petty himself at the request of the Belle Pilot, Robert Morgan. The Memphis Belle grew in fame as a result of this tour, and a documentary type of movie was made on the plane and crew in 1944 and a Hollywood feature film in 1990. Through the years and wars and even to this day, many aircraft carry on the name and Nose Art of the Memphis Belle in the US Air Force to continue the tradition. Currently, a Lockheed C-5 Galaxy and Boeing B-52 Superfortress carry the ‘Memphis Belle X’ and ‘Memphis Belle IV’ (respectively) names along with Petty’s now immortalized artwork.
I’ve always been a fan of Petty’s work since I first started researching PinUp art for PinUp photoshoots many years ago. The Petty Girl captures what I believe to be the perfect and most defined definition of what a PinUp should be: classy, innocent, never full revealing, teasing, loveable, cute, playful, smiling, and many more traits that capture the ‘ideal’ women men had in their minds of the time. The poses were often unrealistic to a degree, and even with their exaggerations of the Petty Girl features, they have a classic sense of beauty and perfection that lasts even to today. There are no tattoos on the Petty Girl, no lip rings or piercings that I could find, nothing too over the top or consensual, just a gal on the phone. The Petty Girl became the model for how I wanted to shoot PinUps, trying to capture that style through photography keeping with the Petty Girl traits always in mind. While the PinUps of today very much differ from this style and cross into the more punk/emo playboy style, I prefer the more conservative modest style that George Petty presents. To me, that’s what a PinUp is all about, bringing out the classic vision of an American woman in the 1940s while not degrading or destroying the female form. You’ll find no super skinny modern-supermodel style women that promote an unhealthy ideal in Petty’s art, but instead you’ll find a down to earth gal you’d love to know. Granted, the PinUp in definition is geared towards the appeal of men, but done correctly and properly it can appeal to anyone. Trying to bring this style out in the PinUp photoshoots I do, I find that it generates a much more fun wholesome photo that has a classic retro look on it’s own without much else needed. While this was my foundation to start on for all PinUp shoots, I still wanted to do something that would not only honor George Petty and bring awareness to his wonderful work, but also have my own stamp attached to it.
The Petty Project was an idea I had a few years ago, when I saw a photo in a random photography magazine where they had taken a model and tried to perfectly replicate a classic PinUp shot by Alberto Vargas through a photograph. This inspired me to try something I’d never done before, mimic a piece of art as perfectly as possible through a photo. It was then I came up with the Petty Project, where I wanted to recreate as many of George Petty’s works as possible through Photography and Photoshop.. and try to do it without spending a fortune on clothing and props. Going into it, I knew a lot of post-work would need to be done to get that perfect look, and the end result I wanted to have that watercolor feel, but the difference would be in that it started from a photograph in a studio with different models. I started the Petty Project in late 2009 and have shot currently (as of July 2010) with four models doing over 15 different Petty works. The process is by no means quick, and up to two-three days worth of work in Photoshop afterwards is required to get that perfect final watercolor look. And while I could go as far as to make them exact replications, I decided to make them all slightly different to keep their unique look and set them apart from Petty’s original work. It’s a process I expect to last me many years as Petty’s work is quite expansive. I’ll be focusing mostly on his early 1940s – early 1950s works, recreating as many as I possibly can over time with many different models. It’s a lot of fun for myself and the models to recreate these famous works of art in this way, though rather challenging when artistic exaggerations are attempted in real life… meaning some of these gals basically have to be contortionists in order to achieve even close to the poses Petty painted. But that’s the beauty of art, being able to escape the boundaries and limitations of the real world, which is where Photoshop and Photography cross paths.
I’ll be chronicling some of my favorite Petty Project recreations on this blog as they are finished, and hopefully in the coming months a website will be setup to showcase the Petty Project and other PinUp Shoot galleries. If you’re interested in helping out with the Petty Project as a model and are located in the Southern California area, feel free to contact me here!
If you’d like to see more samples of George Petty’s artwork, here are some great sites to check out:
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