Almost a century ago and without the aid of any pixel-generating computer software, the itinerant photographer Arthur Mole (1889-1983) 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.
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.
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 woolen 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.
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.
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 (thanks Lorien!).