“The Human U.S. Shield, 1918” 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Michigan
One hundred years ago there was no way that photographs could be ‘pixellated’; yet a pair of inventive snappers managed to achieve something very much like the effect, creating a series of images that would help Americans feel good about themselves and boost patriotism.
“The Human American Eagle, 1918” 12,500 officers, nurses and men; Camp Gordon, Atlanta, Georgia
It was in the time just prior to the outbreak of WWI that Arthur Mole and John Thomas came up with the idea of using an eleven by fourteen inch view camera to produce what they called ‘Living Photographs’ on an enormous scale. This involved the careful positioning of many thousands of men in ways that would suggest familiar and patriotic images when photographed from far enough above.
The 11th Division Seal
The two ‘pixel pioneers’ decided to construct a wooden tower tall enough that they could take their pictures from as far as 80ft up in the air, Mole often resorting to using a megaphone to position the crowds below. He would mark out the required patterns on the ground by pinning thousands of yards of lace materials to the ground. Each single project called for a great deal of careful planning and preparation, and even working out correct numbers of men required was not easy.
“The Human Liberty Bell, 1918” 25000 officers and men at Camp Dix, New Jersey
Arthur S Mole was an Engishman, born in 1889, who hasd worked as a commercial artist before moving to the States in 1901, for religious reasons. His family had been influenced by the teachings of of Dr John Alexander Dowie, and were persuaded to follow him to America, to Zion, Illinois, where he would establish the Zion church. By the time the Mole family arrived, the Zion Christian Tabernacle – capable of seating 10,000, was well underway.
“Living Uncle Sam, 1919”
It was at this very church that Mole met the man, John Thomas, who was responsible for the organization and choreography required to obtain these incredible images. Thomas was director of the church choir, and the numbers of the faithful were sufficient to enable Mole, in 1920, to immortalize his hero Dowie with yet another giant crowd picture.
“The Zion Shield, 1920”
In fact Mole and Thomas had no desire whatever to profit from their pioneering photography. Though obviously deeply moved by the patriotic fervor they encountered, they felt it appropriate to donate all income from their work to helping government schemes for rebuilding the lives of soldiers returning from active service.
During his time in pursuit of these endeavours, Arthur Mole visited many military bases, and the servicemen involved were only too happy to help. The secret of getting the images just right lay in finding exactly the right perspective from which to snap them, and Mole was a master at this. Though a ground level view of one of these crowds would have given nothing away, from 80ft up the outlook was completely different.
Emblem of US Marines
It takes a special kind of vision and talent to pull off these types of pictures, and it seems all the more amazing because of the time in which it all took place. Arthur Mole was an extraordinary talent, and deserves to be remembered.