Even now, many of us still have the quintessential image of a flight attendant from the Golden Age of travel in our memories. Perfectly coiffed, effervescent and small in frame, she — always a “she” — is wearing a small cap and a smile.
The profession began in the 1930s by hiring nurses, who were thought to be ideal candidates because of their inherently caring and good-natured dispositions. Women with small physiques also were favored because it was believed they could glide down the narrow aisle of early airplanes with ease. It evolved into an attractive field where young women could have broader professional horizons, including more independence, travel, meeting potential life partners. Some saw it as a stepping-stone into modeling or acting.
Photographer Brian Finke explores this insular world and its evolution in his book “Flight Attendant.” He spent nearly two years traversing the friendly skies, following the life of flight attendants in the air and on the ground, from Delta and Hawaiian Air, to Hooters Air, Southwest, Air France, British Airways, Air Asia, and dozens more. His images of flight attendants waving, applying makeup and deboarding plans while smiling appear as if they were ripped from an advertisement in a glossy magazine.
“Finke’s approach in photographing Flight Attendants is neither nostalgic nor unduly real,” writes writer Alix Browne in the book’s introduction. “We catch these women in their choreographed moments, familiar to the point of being generic — demonstrating safety procedures, smiling and waving as if in an advertisement.”
Brown also says that while many flight attendants today do exist as a sort of high-flying tribe all their own, with distinct uniforms and mannerisms that are similar no matter what airline you’re flying, they are also just like the rest of us.
“Here, attractive young women, distinctively garbed as a little bit soldier, a little bit fashion model, and a little bit schoolgirl, do the ordinary things we all have done: leaving an apartment, buying a toothbrush, playing billiards, or picking up a kid from daycare. The absurdity of both their circumstances and ours is exaggerated here. In these pictures we recognize that our world includes both these strange inhuman beings and ourselves.”