Photo of the Day

1917 18,000 officers and men form the Statue of Liberty at Camp Dodge in Iowa. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1917. 18,000 officers and men form the Statue of Liberty at Camp Dodge in Iowa. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

Living Photographs

Photographs Created By Assembling Sailors and Soldiers

On a stifling July day in 1918, 18,000 officers and soldiers posed as Lady Liberty on the parade [drill] grounds at Camp Dodge. According to a July 3, 1986, story in the Fort Dodge Messenger, many men fainted — they were dressed in woollen uniforms — as the temperature neared 105°F. The photo, taken from the top of a specially constructed tower by a Chicago photography studio, Mole & Thomas, was intended to help promote the sale of war bonds but was never used.

Born in England in 1889, photographer Arthur Mole became famous for his patriotic work as a naturalized American. But his work was far from traditional.

Accompanied by his partner, John Thomas, Mole visited military bases around the country during World War I. There, he placed his 11×14-inch view camera atop an 80-foot tower and ordered thousands of officers, soldiers, reservists and nurses into colossal compositions.

Each photograph took at least a week of planning to visualize and map out. Mole would trace the outline of each composition on the ground glass of his camera, then use a megaphone and hand signals to direct assistants on the ground.

It took several more hours of wrangling thousands of participants into place before the shutter could be clicked.

In 1917, as the United States were entering World War I, Arthur Mole (1889-1983) created a new type of iconography, which proved useful to the promotion of American nationalism. With the help of his colleague, John D. Thomas, he created sprawling photographic compositions of American society’s symbols and emblems, by assembling and positioning thousands of men into the chosen shapes along the ground. The compositions included the American flag in the shape of a shield, the emblem of the Marines, the Statue of Liberty, and a profile portrait of Woodrow Wilson, among others.

Without the aid of any pixel-generating computer software, the itinerant photographer Mole, used his 11 x 14-inch view camera to stage a series of extraordinary mass photographic spectacles that choreographed living bodies into symbolic formations of religious and national community. In these mass ornaments, thousands of military troops and other groups were arranged artfully to form American patriotic symbols, emblems, and military insignia visible from a bird’s eye perspective. During World War I, these military formations came to serve as rallying points to support American involvement in the war and to ward off isolationist tendencies.

For The Human Liberty Bell, Mole and Thomas traveled to Camp Dix, New Jersey (not far from the City of Brotherly Love), to assemble 25,000 troops in the shape of this national icon. The photo stages the Liberty Bell replete with its famous crack to increase its mimetic likeness and symbolic power. The human inscription of the word “LIBERTY” at the top of the bell signals an advance over the cue cards used in earlier images, such as the Zion Shield. Given that this patriotic symbol is composed of troops, the image delivers the platitude that American military involvement is always undertaken in defense of liberty.

1918. 25,000 officers and men form the Liberty Bell at Fort Dix, New Jersey. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

The most intriguing thing about these images is that Mole called them “living photographs.” From the photographer’s perspective, the emblems are brought to life by means of the living soldiers who embody them. But one can also look at these images from the opposite perspective: we deaden the human beings into form and formation by making them into emblems. The emblem only comes into focus when the living element drops out of the group portrait in these spectacular optical illusions. This total subjection of the individual to the symbolic order also exposes the fascistic tendency inherent in such images. Mole’s “living photographs” thinly disguise the forces of death that in fact adhere to all community. His complete works can be found at the United States’ Library of Congress.

Arthur Mole has one of those comically unassuming names and when he appeared on the US game show “I’ve Got A Secret” in 1962 he lived up to the stereotype: neat, nervous, monosyllabic, surprised to be appearing on national television. He looked as though he’d been selling insurance all his life.

Mole was 73 at the time, and living in retirement in Florida. He had been out of the public eye for 40 years, but the panel unearthed his secret with surprising ease once they’d been given a brief glimpse of a photograph of Woodrow Wilson he’d taken in 1918. This was no ordinary photograph of the US’s president during the first world war: it was an image composed of 21,000 soldiers assembled by Mole and his photographic partner John Thomas at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio. They were the raw material from which Mole created what he called a “living photograph” – one of more than 30 he took after the US entered the war in 1917.


Mole, a commercial photographer in Chicago back then, told the panel on I’ve Got A Secret, that he had visited 18 US military camps and training bases during and immediately after the war. His aim was to create patriotic photographs that countered the isolationism to which parts of American society were periodically prone.

Mole is considered a pioneer in the field of performed group photography. Executing photographs using such large numbers, and relying on lines of perspective stretching out more than a hundred meters, required a week of preparation and then hours to actually position the formations. Mole would stand on his viewing tower and shout into a megaphone or use a long pole with a white flag to arrange the tens of thousands of soldiers into position

Living Portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, for which 21,000 troops assembled at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1918, is the best-known of Mole’s photographs. The image is characteristic of Mole’s work in that it wavers between the compositional effect of the whole (i.e. a portrait of Woodrow Wilson) and the desire to focus upon the obscured individuals who constitute the image, thereby undermining the optical illusion of the totality to a degree.

1918. 21,000 officers and men form a portrait of Woodrow Wilson at Camp Sherman, Ohio. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1918. 30,000 men and officers form an American shield at Camp Custer in Michigan. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1917. U.S. Naval Rifle Range, Camp Logan, Illinois. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1917. Bluejackets form Allied flags at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Pelham Bay, New York. THE LIVING ALLIED FLAGS; BLUEJACKETS AT U.S. NAVAL TRAINING STATION, PELHAM BAY, NEW YORK

1918. Soldiers of the 164th Depot Brigade form a service flag at Fort Riley in Kansas. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1917. Men and officers form the YMCA logo at Camp Wheeler in Georgia. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1918. 12,500 officers, nurses and men form an American eagle at Camp Gordon in Georgia. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

1918. 22,500 officers and men form a machine gun insignia at Camp Hancock in Georgia. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/LIBRARY OF CONGRESS 

c. 1917. Officers and men form a Japanese flag at the United States Naval Training Station in Illinois. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM/GETTY IMAGES

c. 1917. Men and officers form a Union Jack flag at the United States Naval Training Station in Illinois. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM/GETTY IMAGES

1917. Men and officers form an American flag at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois. IMAGE: MOLE & THOMAS/CHICAGO HISTORY MUSEUM/GETTY IMAGES

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