Formation Photographs: Lining up to Salute the Flag

When I take a photo of a group of people, the challenges are familiar to most of us. Are the shorter people in the front so they can be seen? Is everyone’s face visible? Are they smiling? Is everyone looking at the camera? And inevitably, someone still has their eyes closed in the final product.

Formation photograph of the American flag. Photo copyrighted 1917. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b18298

Formation photograph of the American flag. Photo copyrighted 1917. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b18298

Now, multiply the number of people you’re wrangling by thousands and add a new set of challenges including color-coordinated outfits and the mathematics of perspective on a grand scale and you have some idea what it took for Arthur Mole and John Thomas to capture the American flag image at right.

Taken in 1917 at the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, this photo includes about 10,000 U.S. Navy sailors dressed in either white or navy blue uniforms to create what Mole called a “living photograph.” His partner, Thomas, stayed on the ground, coordinating the placement of the thousands of soldiers, while Mole took his place on top of a 75 foot tall tower with camera in hand.

Mole & Thomas carefully planned out this and their future formation photographs beforehand, deciding how many troops to place in each location in order to counteract the effects of perspective. The illusion is very effective, and it takes some very close looking to detect the tricks of the photo. For example, the entire flagpole contains 560 men,while the small ball on top, the furthest from the camera, required nearly 300 men alone. And the entire flag is a mere 73 feet wide at the bottom, but nearly 300 feet at the top, with scores more men standing along the rippling top stripe, so the flag appears to be waving in the breeze.

The partners went on to create about 30 of these patriotic images, visiting multiple U.S. military camps during World War I. Enjoy a few more examples of their work below, starting with another significant flag. During the war, the service flag of the U.S. Armed Forces hung in the window of any home with soldiers or sailors serving. Thomas & Mole tackled this flag as well, pulling together the troops of the 164th Depot Brigade, Camp Funston, in Fort Riley, Kansas.

The living service flag This picture was laid out on the beautiful polo field, near Fort Riley, Kansas. Photo by Mole & Thomas, circa 1918. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.05464

The living service flag. This picture was laid out on the beautiful polo field, near Fort Riley, Kansas. Photo by Mole & Thomas, circa 1918. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.05464

The largest creation Mole & Thomas worked on during this time was “The Human U. S. Shield.” Created at Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan, an amazing 30,000 men had to line up and patiently wait in formation while Mole snapped the photo. The number of people in the shield and therefore overall size required even greater calculation to appear undistorted.  The width of the shield at the base: 90 feet. Across the top? Nearly 600 feet!

The Human U.S. Shield; 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich; Brig. Gen. Howard L. Lauback, commanding. Photo by Mole & Thomas, copyrighted 1918. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b24427

The Human U.S. Shield; 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich; Brig. Gen. Howard L. Lauback, commanding. Photo by Mole & Thomas, copyrighted 1918. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b24427

Mole & Thomas were neither the first to try formation photographs nor the last, as shown by other examples in the collections of the Prints and Photographs Division. Flags continued to be popular subjects of formation photographs, as seen in this depiction of a Navy flag, part of the National Photo Company Collection.

Bureau of Navigation, Naval Training Station, human flag. Photo, National Photo Company, between 1916 and 1917. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.32933

Bureau of Navigation, Naval Training Station, human flag. Photo, National Photo Company, between 1916 and 1917. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/npcc.32933

This rather inventive photograph from 1925 maps the entire United States, with women setting the borders and men filling in for the states.

Human map of the U.S.A. Photo by Morton & Co., copyrighted 1925. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11716

Human map of the U.S.A. Photo by Morton & Co., copyrighted 1925. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11716

The Human American eagle; 12,500 officers, nurses and men; Camp Gordon, Atlanta, Ga.; Maj. Gen. George H. Cameron, commanding. Photo by Mole & Thomas, copyrighted 1918. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11329

The Human American eagle; 12,500 officers, nurses and men; Camp Gordon, Atlanta, Ga.; Maj. Gen. George H. Cameron, commanding. Photo by Mole & Thomas, copyrighted 1918. hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b11329

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