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Formation Photographs

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This post was written by Peter DeCraene, a 2021-22 Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellow at the Library of Congress.

College football fans are familiar with half-time shows where marching bands create detailed formations on the field. The same idea was used more than one hundred years ago to create patriotic images during World War I, like the picture of the Statue of Liberty shown here. Photographers Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas organized thousands of men and women in the U.S. Armed Services, from bases across the country, to create these “living photographs.” These photographs can provide interesting puzzles for students in math and design classes or prompt discussions about patriotism and propaganda for students in social studies classes.

Image of the Statue of Liberty created by 18,000 soldiers
Human Statue of Liberty created by 18,000 soldiers at Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa. Mole & Thomas, 1918

Encourage analysis and conversation by revealing the image one piece at a time. Start with the top quarter of the picture, showing only the torch and the buildings in the distance, and give students time to observe and reflect. Then reveal the entire top half of the photograph, and ask the students to revisit their thinking. The sentence stem “I used to think … and now I think … because …”  can support students in expressing their thinking. Finally, reveal the entire picture, including the handwritten information, and ask students to observe and reflect again, and to ask questions. Prompt conversation as needed:

  • When do you think this picture was taken?
  • Why might the photograph, involving so many people, have been commissioned?
  • Where would the photographer have been standing to produce this image?
  • The caption says there were 18,000 people in this picture; how reasonable is this number?
  • If you could could talk to one person in this picture, what would you ask?

Students may wonder why the faces of those in the front row are almost recognizable, while those in the back blend together, or why there appear to be many more people in the torch than in the statue’s robe. In a STEM or design class, these might be the starting point for a project about creating a large formation with many people and the use of perspective. Some internet research into the photographers and their “living photographs” should provide some clues about their methods.

This picture was taken in 1918, when the United States was engaged in the First World War. As part of a social studies class, you might ask:

  • In what ways might this image of the Statue of Liberty and the other photographs taken by Mole and Thomas have functioned as propaganda?
  • What messages does the image, in which thousands of people come together to produce one photograph, send? How might the message be perceived differently by citizens at home? By the soldiers engaged in the fighting?

 The Library of Congress has a collection of these pictures by Mole and Thomas as well as a few other photographers. Students might investigate these images to further their design thinking, while social studies students may research the symbols being depicted. These historic formation photographs provide opportunities to connect STEM topics with ideas from design and social studies.

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