Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Photoshop

As we in the United States celebrate Independence Day (aka Fourth of July), those of us in design communications can marvel at the freedoms that technology now allow. The living photograph here by Mole and Thomas was taken decades before the invention of Photoshop or even 35mm handheld cameras.

Around 1918, during the height of World War I patriotic fervor, Arthur S. Mole, a British-born photographer based in Zion, Illinois, joined forces with John D. Thomas, a choir director who liked to position choir members to form various religious icons-a talent that made him the perfect photo choreographer for Mole’s grandiose ideas. Together the two set about creating gigantic patriotic symbols by using military personnel essentially as “human pixels” and then photographing them.

The pair traveled from one U.S. military base to another and talked thousands of soldiers into posing for a “group shot.” It took at least a week to prepare for each photograph. First Mole and Thomas traced out the desired patriotic symbol on a ground-glass plate mounted on Mole’s 11-by-14 inch view camera. Then the shape was outlined on an open field using fabric staked into the ground. A sample section was then used to calculate how many models were needed to fill the whole shape and determine how many men had to wear dark uniforms or light uniforms.

Standing on a rickety 80-foot-high tower to get a birdseye view, Mole would then direct the gathered troops by using a megaphone, hand signals and a pointer flag. The set-up often took hours and the troops, wearing heavy wool dress uniforms, had to stand patiently in formation under the sweltering heat.

The photograph here, taken on the parade ground at the U.S. Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, involved 10,000 cadets. In total, Mole and Thomas made 10 “living photographs,” including a 30,000-man U.S. Shield; an 18,000-person Lady Liberty; 25,000-person Liberty Bell complete with its signature crack in the middle; 19,000-man Uncle Sam, and 12,500-person American Eagle. Each photograph was processed into a silver gelatin print. The profits from the sale of prints were donated to help the war effort.

Happy Fourth of July.

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