Bernard Safran – The Use of Photographs in Illustration

Precis: This talk was given by my father, Bernard Safran, to Mount Allison University’s Art School in 1974.  (I have previously published several posts on this blog about my father’s 10 years as an illustrator in NYC)


I have been asked to talk to you today about the use of photographs in illustration. I was an illustrator in New York doing magazine, book and advertising illustration from 1946 until 1956.

Bernie as happy cowboy173

Reference photo of himself as a cowboy c 1950

From 1957 through August 1965 I worked for Time Magazine painting covers. The illustration business has changed drastically since then. When I began it was quite a large business. Illustrators were held in great esteem, and at the top earned lots of money. All that changed with the explosive growth of TV, which by absorbing advertising dollars destroyed many of the major magazines, and also other markets once open to the illustrator. The business now doesn’t resemble the business as it was then.

I am certain however that illustrations are done the same way. The things that govern the methods are time and money; and these have if anything become more important because of the competition of photography which is both cheaper and quicker. And which art directors turned to when their budgets were cut.

I went to Pratt Institute to study illustration. It was and is one of the leading art schools in the United States. In school, in that long ago, the use of photographs in illustration was regarded as not only grossly immoral; it smacked of not playing the game; and had a large odor of larceny about it. So a severe prejudice against photographs, and their use was held up as a fundamental canon.

Remarkably after all this time, I understand that this attitude still survives in art schools intact. In this era, it is astonishing to me how hardy it has proven to be.

After I graduated, it was some time before I found out that you simply could not compete or survive as an illustrator without using photographs. Having made this unequivocal statement, I’d like to leave it for a short time, and turn to a broader subject.

What I would like to discuss briefly is the use of mechanical devices used by artists since antiquity to help them in their work. The most important element of any work of art is the idea that it projects. The finished result is what you see, and only that counts. How the artist arrives at that end doesn’t matter. You look at it, and it evokes a response, or it doesn’t. If you are aware of the effort that has gone into it at all, then the artist has failed. His only object is to present his idea whole, full born, and in full force. If you are a professional artist you understand this, and will use any means that will save time and effort. Your major effort is not in the mechanical, but in the philosophical area.

the craftsman's treatiseI would also say that when artists were in a master’s studio years ago, and when artist’s guilds were in being, methods of work were kept closely guarded secrets. The artists regarded themselves primarily as craftsmen. If you read Cennini’s The Craftsman’s Handbook written in 1426 (the first artist’s technical manual that we have), or Leonardo Da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting, you will find that their chief concern was not Aesthetics, but how to do things.

There have been numerous devices used to speed up the actual doing of work. Probably the earliest, and most widely used was the camera obscura. The exact date of it’s invention, the Encyclopedia Brittanica says is unknown, but it is reputed to have been in used in ancient Greece. The first written reference to it that we have is in 1038 AD.


Alberti’s diagram

The camera obscura is an optical apparatus consisting of a darkened chamber into which light is admitted through a convex lens. This lens forms an image of external objects on a screen and can then be traced. The Italian painter and architect Alberti used it in 1437, and so did Leonardo Da Vinci who also left some accurate drawings of it. In 1558 there is an account of it’s application to painting and portraiture. We also know that Canaletto and Guardi in painting their views of Venice used the camera obscura.

canaletto camera obscura

Canalettos camera obscura, Venice

Canaletto’s is now in the Correr Museum in Venice. Since their paintings were commercial art done primarily to sell to tourists on the Grand Tour, they in some cases didn’t even bother to correct their tracings by straightening the verticals. The camera obscura was very popular with English young ladies learning to paint water colors in the 18th and 19th centuries, since they could trace and not learn how to draw.

durer camera obscura

Camera obscura by Durer

There were also tracing devices used by such great painters as Hans Holbein (the Younger) and Albrecht Durer. In fact here is a drawing of one by Durer. It is now quite accepted that Holbein as court painter to Henry VIII used such an apparatus. His drawings of court personalities now in Windsor Castle show clear evidence of it.

Anything that helped was used. The great Venetian Tintoretto left dozens of small sculptured figures, as did El Greco. These were used in small sets which were lit, and then used as reference for large paintings. This method of setting up the lighting of a picture was used by a man I knew – Gail Phillips, who was a Saturday Evening Post illustrator, and ran an illustration studio. He’d make a model of the setting for his illustration, light it, photograph it, and paint from it.

El Greco statuette

An El Greco statuette, Prado

Since El Greco was a pupil of Titian, it is not unreasonable to assume that Titian also did this, and no doubt many others.

Portrait painters such as Sir Joshua Reynolds only painted their sitters heads. The sitter would come in one hour a week over an extended period. Sir Joshua had an assembly line, and painted numerous people daily. The sitter’s clothes were put on a life sized mannequin which had articulated arms and legs, and Sir Joshua’s assistants known as drapery painters, did the rest.

It is no surprise therefore that with the advent of the photograph artists were quick to seize on it for help in their work. The great French painter Eugene Delacroix explored the use of photographs as early as 1853, just a few years after their invention. I found four references to the use of photographs by himself and others, in his journal, just casually going through it. Degas is reputed to have used them, and I have no doubt many others less eminent. We know that one of the finest American painters Thomas Eakins used them, and was also associated with Muybridge in trying to catalog the various actions of the human figure among other species, by photographing them. These photos have been available in book form in the last few years.


Delacroix photo


Delacroix Odalisque

I’m not trying to give you a history of the ways artists have tried to lighten their work, since I really have a small knowledge in this regard, but only want to show that it is not new or unusual.

In fact when you are a working illustrator, you find that you must be able to do your work quickly, and well. You must meet stringent deadlines, or – you may as well forget it.

I really learned to be an illustrator in the aforementioned Gail Phillips Studio. It was in mid Manhattan. There were quite a few illustrators at work there. The work covered the whole range of illustration from billboards to magazines to fashions. All of it was done from black and white photographs. There was a full time photographer there, and a large photographic studio.

Bernie Safran posing with model for pulp cover

Bernie Safran posing with a model for a pulp cover c 1950

If you are doing commercial illustration, you cannot make things up. There must be some air of authenticity. The greatest difficulty in painting a realistic picture is that it is virtually  impossible to invent the subtleties of how light will fall on people in your picture. In an illustration you can somewhat fake the background, but not the people. You must have models. Models are expensive. Beautiful girls, for example of the types in the current fashion, with beautiful clothes, fashionable makeup, and hair dos, cannot be improvised. When I was doing paper back book covers way back in 1949, they paid about $200 for a cover. Models were paid, not the top ones by any means, from $20 to $25 an hour. It’s obvious that you couldn’t hire them for long. So you photographed them in black and white. It was the most inexpensive way; the quickest and most versatile.

In discussing a paper back cover, for instance, with an art director, he’d generally tell you the exact situation he wanted you to illustrate. You then went, and did some sketches. When he had approved one, ordinarily with some changes, you hired models. Then you posed them, and lit them according to the sketch, and photographed them. There was a photographic studio in New York called Fashiongraph, and others that provided this service. They had a large file of models. They would book the models, take the actual photographs, and get the prints to you very quickly. when you worked in a studio as I did which had it’s own photographer, you could have prints within the hour. You’d get light prints so you could see into the shadow areas, and dark prints so that you could see the form in the light areas. If you did this yourself, you were able to make them even more useful by enlarging various details.

It is obvious that the photograph makes things much easier if you are dealing with action, as most illustrations are. The figure is off balance in a pose that can’t be held for long, or at all. If you try to do it from a model, you must do it piecemeal, and it is time consuming. The photograph solves this problem.

Bernie Safran reference photo

Bernie Safran in reference photo

Why black and white photographs instead of color? In doing an illustration there must be a unified color scheme. The illustration only projects one situation. The color sets the mood, and so you make it up to dramatize the picture. Normal or natural color is too drab. Every thing in an illustration is forced. The action, the black and white pattern, and the color. It can’t be very subtle, or it won’t reproduce well.

As an example of the kind of situation that comes up – I once did a Pocket book cover of a Perry Mason mystery. The picture showed a pretty blond holding a gun on Perry Mason who had his hands up. On delivery the art director thought it was fine. However, on a Friday afternoon he called and said that the editor had decided that we couldn’t show Perry Mason’s face since everyone had a different idea of how he looked. Perry Mason had to be turned around to show his back. The painting had to be back on Monday morning to meet the deadline. I ran in, picked it up, got home, and had my wife photograph my back, arms up. After I developed the photos, it was quite late. It suddenly occurred to me that the painting was done in casein, the toughest of materials, and I had no way to remove the figure of Perry Mason. It was a holiday weekend. I couldn’t get a solvent at the hardware store. I did however have a bottle of Cutty Sark scotch, and I sacrificed it for the job, successfully. As you can see, this sort of time frame makes the photograph essential.

Outdoor Life cover by Bernard Safran 1951

Outdoor Life cover by Bernard Safran 1951 (my uncle posed for the reference photo)

Here I’d like to touch on something else that is of primary importance to the illustrator. It is called scrap in the trade. Scrap means reference material. It is something the illustrator uses continually. Whatever you illustrate must be accurate, or as accurate as you can get it. So that if you paint 19th century France, the clothes and objects must be right. In an illustration of the US Calvary during the Indian Wars, the uniforms and equipment, and the Indians must be correct. There is an immense clipping collection in the New York Public Library on 42nd Street devoted to this*, and most illustrators are continually adding to their own files too.

Only rarely do illustrators hire the actual costumes or objects. Mostly they are improvised from clippings. Sometimes, quite often in fact, they will simply use the clippings as they are, perhaps reversing them. This frequently happens with backgrounds. The illustrator photographs his models in approximate dress, and used this or that from wherever he can find it, for his setting. The dominant factor is expediency, and the saving of time. The one saving grace of this practice is that it develops in the illustrator a great facility in pictorial composition. He frequently finds that he is dealing with many diverse situations, and with large differences of time and mood at once. Bad as this practice may sound, its practical result is a lot of flexibility and mental agility.

Houdon's l'Ecorché

My father believed a firm foundation in anatomy was vital. He owned a copy of Houdon’s flayed man, l’Ecorché, and kept it in his studio for reference. (image from

Now that I’ve told you why and how photographs are used by illustrators, I’d like to add some words of caution. Anyone can take a photograph, and copy it, but it doesn’t make him an artist. For the illustrator it is a tool and he uses it as such.

To use it properly, he must know how to draw, and understand form. This means that the artist has to be able to see in the photograph what he would see in the model.

Without going into a discussion on how to draw the figure, it simply is the realization of how the edges turn, where the planes are, and how the figure articulates. The artist must know what to emphasize and what to diminish. The photograph cannot be used as it is, or the result will be lifeless, and dull. The best photograph from the point of view of the illustrator is the sharpest and most detailed. The maximum information is the aim.

B Safran drawing of Michaelangelo anatomy smaller file

My father worked continually on sharpening his eye and hand with drawing the human form. In this study of Michaelangelo sculpture you can see how he is simplifying the planes of the figure, and emphasizing the form  by using line across the form to develop the light and dark values. When he was teaching me to draw, I drew from life, from l’Ecorché, and from photographs of Michaelangelo sculptures because Michaelangelo had already simplified the form of the body and it was easier to see the planes. Page from one of Bernard Safran’s sketchbooks.


The process of selection is the artist’s job. The photograph does not have a living presence as a model does, and the effect of life is something the illustrator must add to it from his knowledge.

To use a photograph properly is something that must be learned after the artist has learned his business, and not before. If a person becomes dependent on the use of photographs before he understands how to be an artist, the result will never be better than poor. So in my opinion it’s best to keep away from the photograph until you have learned as much as you can.


* The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection is now located at The Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Mid-Manhattan Library, and Science, Industry and Business Library: 455 Fifth Avenue New York, NY, 10016 (212) 340-0863



1950s Pulp Fiction Covers

Paul Revere by NC Wyeth 1922

Paul Revere by NC Wyeth 1922

My Dad had high hopes when he was in school. He was inspired to be an illustrator by the works of NC Wyeth, Rockwell Kent, Arthur Rackham and other artists who were at the time considered great illustrators and great artists in their own rights.

When he graduated from Pratt after serving in WWII (see earlier posts pre 1960) he was excited to join the ranks of the great illustrators. He was determined to only take work that was painting or drawing.

After pounding the pavement for months trying to find work in New York City, he realized that he didn’t know anything practical about the illustration business. So to learn how to survive in NYC as an illustrator, he joined the Gail Phillips Illustration Studio in November 1947 (he’d apprenticed at another studio earlier that year but quit after three months when he’d learned all he could there).

At Gail Phillips he rented space and worked for commission on jobs that came through the owning business. It was tough to make any money there, but he put in the hours and learned everything he needed.

He went on to work at two more studios – the last one run by an agent where he could work independently but still use the facilities, including the photo studio where he hired models and did his own reference photographs. He had several models that he worked with over the years – women with the contemporary look that was in demand at the time.

Outdoor Life Magazine cover 1951 by Bernard Safran

This is my handsome Uncle Charlie posing for my Dad for the cover of Outdoor Life.

He eventually gave up the commercial studio space to work from home in order to save money.

He also needed a full time agent devoted to getting him paying work. So my mother managed to get fired from her illustration job at a publishing company, and became his agent, (figuring they’d make more money selling his art).

She went out 5 days a week to all the publishers in NYC with my Dad’s portfolio and smiled and chatted her way into getting him work.

Because she was friendly and didn’t take offense at rude behavior it was an easier job for her than it would be for my father – and since it wasn’t her work she was less inclined to take editor’s changes and criticisms personally; she could bring these comments back to my father and smooth the waters. She got him all sorts of illustration jobs including an entire children’s bible, full page work for magazines like Boy’s Life, and covers and interiors for literary books.

Bernie Safran in reference photo of cowboy

Bernie Safran in reference photo of cowboy. Here he’s using his childhood cap gun that was a beautiful replica of Tom Mix’s ivory handled silver gun.

But what he is perhaps best known for today by collectors are his pulp fiction covers.

For financial reasons, my mother became his model for many of the source photos he needed. He had already been using himself for most of the male figures he painted – occasionally calling on his handsome brother in law for a modelling job now and then.

My mother was also the set dresser and photographer’s assistant during these sessions. Props were bought when necessary like my Dad’s cowboy hat, but usually my parents used scarves of my mother’s and brooms or whatever they had at hand to represent the size and weight of whatever object had to be painted.

Bernie Safran with professional model in reference photo for Pulp Fiction cover

Bernie Safran with professional model in reference photo for Pulp Fiction cover

My Dad also kept a large image file on hand – clippings on all sorts of topics that he could use as reference material. I loved going through all those files when I was a kid – especially the one on horses that he kept for doing Westerns. (The files had to be trashed in the 80s due to mildew damage.)

He painted more than 40 pulp fiction covers during this time. It was relatively easy money – and he was good at it.

Croyden Publishing gave him the most jobs. He was able to capture just the right amount of sleeze but still keep it in the parameters of the current laws. For example, when he had to paint a woman with her shirt being ripped off, there were absolute limits to what could show and how it could be shown.

Indiscretions of A French Model by Bernard Safran, Croyden Publishing Co. oil on canvas board, 1953

My Dad was only paid $100.00 for this cover. You can see him in the foreground – the other guys were probably also himself, painted with different faces.
Indiscretions of A French Model by Bernard Safran, Croyden Publishing Co. oil on canvas board, 1953.

The publishing companies tried their best to work around these prohibitions and made my father revise some of the covers multiple times. They regularly demanded other changes too – in gestures (again circumventing the codes), in colors (fuschia is the most eye catching color on book stands) and in content.

Dealing with these myriad problems and changes gave my father an invaluable base of knowledge and self confidence to go forward – though the endless revisions drove him mad at the time.

He only made between $100 to $250 a cover. He knew the covers were trashy and not his best work, but he needed the money.

There are some covers where you can see he put a lot of effort in, and others that he obviously didn’t give a damn.

Backroad Motel, cover by Bernard Safran

My father is very clearly the guy in the green jacket (clearly to me) and probably the guy in the back too with some imaginative adjustments. The woman very likely was my mother foxed up.

But interestingly enough, his pulp covers of the 1950s are currently his hottest sellers at auction today…

…which I do find kind of sad given that his later works are so magnificent…

However, I say its all good. The more people who know the name Bernard Safran the better.

Cold Water, Mud and the Heroic March of the Shower

Long Lake - Red House, photos by Bernard Safran

Long Lake – Red House, photos by Bernard Safran

We had a real problem in our old red farmhouse – a true lack of hot water. When we moved in there was a big old, cast iron, oil burning kitchen stove hooked up – attached to which was a hot water tank that was supposed to heat up when the stove was being used. However, no matter how hot or how long we had the stove/oven on, there was no hot water – some mildly warm water if you were being optimistic.

iron stove

This looks much like the awful stove we had when we moved in, but ours was black. It was powered with oil that came in through the wall from the big oil tank outside that also powered our furnace.

The stove just didn’t work – it was hot enough that I could rest my butt on the edge of it and keep myself warm (my jeans all became polished on the butt from this over the course of the winter), but for cooking or baking it just never excelled. In fact one time we had a fruit pie in the oven to bake for more than 6 hours and it still didn’t finish cooking.

Also, when we first moved in there was no shower and the tub was just big enough to sit in, in an inch of warm water and freeze. Eventually we started heating pots of water on the stove and pouring them into the tub to bathe in – but that wasn’t too satisfying. We finally ordered a shower to install in the tub from the Sears catalog and it arrived at some point mid spring thaw.

Imagine this fixture (see below) stuck onto the end of a tub with no wall behind it for support – it was truly free standing and wobbly and was probably the cheapest one available.


This is not a photo of our old shower – this one is in a barn.

And since our water was pumped up from a well located down the hill and had low water pressure, and we had no hot water, it really wasn’t all that.

The spring thaw in Jolicure was a serious situation for which we city folk were very under prepared. All the dirt roads in the area got slick with mud and treacherous with deep holes.

Our road in particular was impassible for weeks at a time every year. We didn’t just have deep pot holes – we had oozing, bubbling volcanic eruptions of mud, and vast bottomless pits of mud – the kind of mud holes that suck a rubber boot right off your foot and leave you squishing helplessly on one foot to retrieve your lost boot or worse –  takes both boots and leaves you in your socks.

The kind of mud that cars slowly sludged into and couldn’t get out of – that even tractors got stuck in. The kind of mud that you ended up covered in by the time you got home and there was no hot water…

Mud road JolicureWhen the thaw started that first year we lived there, my father would drive our poor blue Maverick down the road, gunning it to swerve around the obvious holes and careening around eruptions when possible –  to ultimately slide somewhere unpleasant… we got ditched and stuck in holes constantly. You cannot imagine how horrible it is to get behind the spinning wheels of a car stuck in a deep mud hole (well maybe you can imagine), all the mud just sprays all over you and into your mouth while you piteously try to push the car out of the hole, only succeeding enough for the car to swoosh into the next one. It was humiliating having to get a local farmer to come and pull the car out repeatedly – this even became impossible when the tractor could no longer get out and a second tractor had to be called.

The Coming of Spring to Jolicure by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 24" x 30" March 1981

This is a painting by my Dad, of my Uncle Lorne working on the mud holes on his road which was considerably better than our road.
The Coming of Spring to Jolicure by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 24″ x 30″ March 1981

We eventually had to park our car at the crossroads of Jolicure proper and walk in the 2 miles to our house carrying our food and anything else we needed for at least 6 weeks till the surface improved enough that a vehicle could get in. On foot, we learned how to spot most of the bottomless pits before helplessly pitching in, but sometimes the surface of the road was like a sheer membrane that when you put any pressure on it, the entire surface wobbled and moved and if it cracked while you were still on it you had to somehow get onto something solid or end up sucked into the road crying for help.

And so when our shower arrived from Sears, we had to carry it in for two miles through foot sucking, wiggly wobbly, erupting mud. The thing was at least 5 feet long and required a person on each end to carry it; we had to coordinate where we were going and try to avoid falling… which we could not. Some of the time we walked along the edge of the forest on the uneven ground that was covered with moss, scrub and lumpy outcrops of grass and small trees.

We did eventually haul that damn shower in to the house, and we did get it hooked up so we could have showers – but it wasn’t worth it –  there was still no hot water.

Tractor and wagon spring 1973

When the school bus could no longer drive down our road our friendly neighbor would pick us up in his big pickup with 4 wheel drive to take us out to the corner to get the bus. Then when the pickup couldn’t make it through we went on a hay cart – sitting on a bale of straw- behind his tractor. (I got chilblains on my ears and outer toes one spring during a snow storm sitting exposed on the back of the wagon). When the hay cart couldn’t make it we stood on the back of the tractor behind the huge wheels and hung on. When the tractor could no longer make it I got to stay home from school. Here my sister is coming home with some groceries thanks to our neighbor – Spring 1973.

By the next spring we got rid of that old oil stove and put in an electric range in the pantry and a Franklyn wood burning stove (just for heating) where the old stove had stood in the main kitchen (still the only source of heat for the hot water tank). And we sold the Maverick and bought a Toyota Land Cruiser 4 x 4 – that looked like it was game for anything, and guess what? It got stuck too.

Note: you may find me sounding whiny about the hot water situation – but understand this: a year and a half after moving to Jolicure, my girl friends at school (in grade 8) started fingering through my hair and scalp and remarked on how filthy I was – it was embarrassing – but worse than that my body was scaly with filth too. And, with the road impassable for weeks and no hot water – clothes didn’t get washed either. So hygiene became a serious issue for me. My parents were quite oblivious.

New York City in Black and White

In my last post I wrote about how New York City and the suburban area I grew up in had changed for the worst through the late 1960s and early 1970s. I recommended viewing the movie American Gangster by Ridley Scott as an excellent visual and gut impact way to experience how I remember the city as it was just before we moved away.

As soon as I clicked on the Publish button to set that post, it occurred to me that my father, Bernard Safran had painted and photographed the grimy streets of New York during that period and that I should offer up some of his remarkable images. So here’s a small selection from the over 4,000 black and white photographs my father took of the city scape (these were shown for the first time at the Triangle Gallery in Calgary, Alberta in 2012).

If you want to see a larger version of the horizontal pictures – just click on the picture

next time I’ll post some of his paintings…

Bernard Safran, 2  men in front of derelict building

Bernard Safran, Two Men in Front of Derelict Building

Bernard Safran, Flop House

Bernard Safran, Flop House

Bernard Safran, Tenements with Laundry

Bernard Safran, Tenements with Laundry

Bernard Safran, Girl with Two Children

Bernard Safran, Girl with Two Children

Bernard Safran, Crowded Street

Bernard Safran, Crowded Street

Bernard Safran, Wrecked Cars

Bernard Safran, Wrecked Cars

Bernard Safran, Woman in front of ruined satanic altar

Bernard Safran, Woman in front of ruined satanic altar

Bernard Safran, Doll in High Window

Bernard Safran, Doll in High Window

Art in Service

In my previous post I wrote about how my parents met at art school in 1942 and that soon after my Dad was drafted into the military in 1943. My father served in the US Army Engineer Corps (the Engineer Aviation Battalion 1891st) till the end of WWII *.

Postcard from Bernie Safran 1943Throughout those years my parents wrote to each other and sent photos back and forth.

Here is a postcard dating from April 1943 that my dad Bernie sent to my mother Adele from the Base Unit at Geiger Field in Washington State. He was being moved with the troops across the country to Los Angeles from where he would ship to India, then on to Burma, and finally to China. (The message on the card was about their stop in Chicago and how great the USO was there.)

You can see he doodled all over the card.

I’ve only found one surviving letter from the time my Dad was overseas – I know that my parents destroyed the other letters because they wanted to keep their secrets to themselves.

This letter has drawings all over it just like the postcard.Bernard Safran letter from Basic Training 1943  It’s an early letter and not a very personal one (which is probably why it survives from a scrapbook I used to look at all the time when I was a kid). It recounts my father’s experiences in basic training to my mother.

Since my Dad was an artist he continued to work at his drawing throughout his service in the War. He drew on whatever paper he could find, and he drew whenever he had the time.

There are several beautiful small drawings of his friends and colleagues among my father’s papers.

 Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7" x 5", March 1944

Bernard Safran, Library, pencil drawing, 7″ x 5″, March 1944

And there are quite a few fully completed, surreal drawings from then too. They seem to be created from his stream of consciousness…

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil drawing on airmail paper, 9" x6", WWII

Bernard Safran, Chess Game, pencil on paper, 9″ x 6″, WWII.
(the paper has yellowed and become spotted from moisture over time)

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75" x 5", WWII

Bernard Safran, color pencil drawing on paper, 7.75″ x 5″, untitled (it was pasted into a scrapbook in the 1940s)

Some depict clear themes, while others conjure fantasies or nightmares. Many of them are disturbing – which is not surprising given he was in the middle of a terrible war.

These drawings have never been shown, as far as I know, to anyone beyond immediate family.

Bernard Safran, Pen and Ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5" x4.5", untitled

Bernard Safran, pen and ink drawing on sheer paper 6.5″ x4.5″, untitled

My father often reminisced about his war years, but he would never tell me about the darker side of being a soldier. In my righteous teenage years, I interpreted this to mean that he enjoyed the whole war experience – and this offended me. My mother explained to me then, that just the opposite was true – it had been an awful time for him, but he was proud to have served and felt it was something he had to do.

Then she further explained that he served during his late teens and early 20s – a time that most people feel nostalgic for, simply because they are young and life is still an adventure. Certainly being in China, Burma and India was an adventure – this I could understand, and this helped me understand my father better.

Another time my mother told me that though my father had army buddies who kept in touch through Christmas Cards and letters over the years, he mostly avoided the company of the men he had to camp with.

Bernie with Dog WWII

Bernie Safran with a dog, WWII. My father, like many soldiers, looked for happiness in small things during the war.

Conditions at all the bases were primitive, to say the least. They camped in tents in the jungle and were overrun with venomous snakes like pythons and cobras, and other wild creatures. The heat and humidity were oppressive and foot rot and mildew were ever present. The food was horrendous, and there were endless Allied plane crashes on the airstrips too. All of this and the constant threat of enemy fire made life a living hell.

My father was always a loner, and preferred the company of a few like-minded individuals to the comradeship of a larger group. So he spent a lot of time in his tent, at the base library, or at the service club when he could.

C-47-flying-the-Hump WWII by R G Smith

An amazing painting by R G Smith called Over the Hump, Douglas C-47. To see more spectacular aviation paintings visit

One of the things he remembered fondly from the War was the experience of flying The Hump from India to China over the Himalayas. He spoke about the solitude and sheer beauty of the mountains and the endless jungles that they crossed.

The Hump, map by Zaur Eylanbekov from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009

The Low Hump route over the southern end of the range was less perilous, but Japanese fighters forced most missions over the main Hump—including the 15,000-foot-high Sansung range between the Salween and Mekong rivers.(Staff map by Zaur Eylanbekov) from: Air Force Magazine Oct 2009, by John T Correll

It was only recently that I read about The Hump. I found out that it was extremely dangerous and some historians estimate that nearly 700 planes went down during this mission, never to be found. I’m not sure how many times my Dad went on the run but he told me that he went whenever the opportunity arose.

When I had the honor to go with my father inside a Canadian war plane (on a hangar in a museum – not in flight) similar to the C-47s my father flew in – I could easily imagine the experience of being a young person overwhelmed with life in war time and the freedom of standing some thousands of feet above the earth hanging onto the frame of the open door with nothing between you and the clouds.

Battalion leather patch WWII

*Campaigns: India-Burma, China Defensive, China Offensive