Living Flags: The Navy and the First Viral Photo Trend

by E.J.A. Prevoznak, LT, CHC, USN NMAS Volunteer

Everyone covets the perfect picture. However, even with the ubiquity and high-tech quality of cameras today, the perfect picture remains difficult to capture; because it is not just about the color and the lighting, but about the way the picture makes us feel. We snap picture after picture attempting to grasp onto a feeling that is on the edge of our emotion but remains distant. When we finally grasp onto that perfect picture, the meaning is self-evident. We share it with friends and family or even complete strangers when we post it online. Picture reach the coveted status of viral when others not only see and share it, but also copy it. This is exactly what happened at the turn of the 20th century with the viral trend of “living flags”.

10,000 sailors from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center form a living flag at Soldier Field, Chicago. Image courtesy of the Naval History and Heritage Command.

Living flags were one on the first “viral” social trends of the 20th century. In the waning decades of the 19th century, when photography became more accessible to the general public, trends such as post-mortem family photos became very popular, amongst others1. As photographic technology advanced into the 20th century, photographers became more ambitious, and the possibilities seemed endless. As the 20th century progresses, the United State realized it was a powerful nation on the world stage and Americans wanted to recognize this in meaningful ways. What better way to show patriotism than at the spiritual birthplace of the Stars and Stripes, Fort McHenry, Maryland?

The first Living flag or “Human flag” as it was initially called, staged in 1914 by famed Maryland-based photographer John Dubas. Dubas staged 6,500 Baltimore elementary school students outside Fort McHenry to celebrate the centennial of the Battle of Fort McHenry and the writing of the Star-Spangled Banner. It was a monumental effort to coordinate the proper colors, size, and measurements to ensure the effort was a success. Despite the intricacies of recreating Dubas’ flag, it went viral. Other communities continued to replicate it and inspired other photographers to stage their own living flag.

Dubas’ photograph came back to life 100 years later in 2014 when it was replicated. Notably, one participant in the original 1914 flag participated again in 2014. Myrtle Sanders was just three months old when she participated in the first centennial living flag at Fort McHenry and was 100 years old when she attended the bicentennial living flag.

The most prominent photographer to flame this viral trend was Arthur Mole. Mole emigrated from England to Lake County, Illinois where he started his passion in photography. With the outbreak of World War I in Europe, the Wilson Administration and War Department called for the largest mobilization of the military since the Civil War. Military installations across the country doubled in size, and the military needed a way to keep morale and spirits high. With Mole’s home in such close proximity to one of the largest Navy bases in the country, Naval Station Great Lakes, he was able to secure a commission to photograph Sailors, Soldiers, and Marines to do just that. 

It was a crisp, clear, wintry November morning in 1917. A commercial photographer, Arthur S. Mole, then a Zion, Illinois resident, was perched atop the Administration Building of the Great Lakes Naval Training Station. As he peered through his 11 x 14 inch viewfinder camera, almost 10,000 sailors stood below him on the station’s parade ground in the formation of the American flag. Image courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Mole took the trend, properly known as “performed group photography,” and made it his own by making it an artform beyond a static American flag. He staged waving flags and emblems across the country to instill in the American people a sense of comradery during a national crisis and war. One of Mole’s most famous works, “A Living Flag” on Naval Station Great Lakes depicts almost 10,000 sailors in both white and blue uniforms standing at attention saluting the camera all staged to depict an American flag waving. Mole continued to push the artistic boundaries by staging a portrait of Woodrow Wilson, the Statue of Liberty, the Liberty Bell, and the U.S. Shield comprised of 30,000 soldiers, one of the largest performed group photographs ever captured.Mole’s photographs inspire us today and original prints even command high prices at auctions, placing his work in similar categories as other great early 20th century American photographers like Ansel Adams. Adams’ photographs of the Yosemite wilderness are beautiful beyond measure; however, unlike Mole’s photographs there are without people. Some viral photos become viral because of the people in them. They share meaning with the viewer that touches their spirit in a visceral way. Mole’s photographs have thousands of people, all looking right us sharing one undeniable message: We love our country.

The Human U.S. Shield; 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Michigan. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Living photography shows the power of how a group of people can create something that lives not just on film but throughout history. If even one sailor is missing, one sailor not in the right uniform, one sailor not in the right place; the entire picture is blurred. The picture doesn’t make sense. Everyone is needed and all are equally important. That is exactly what the Navy is: a sailor interlinked with another to create something beyond any of us can do on our own. 

This is precisely why the Navy still embraces living flags today. The Navy proudly carries on the tradition of living flags into the 21st century on flight decks of ships at sea. Flags of all types have been recreated; everything from the Stars and Stripes to the Sexual Assault Prevention ribbon. It shows that living flags are just that; alive. They are not stagnant old yellow and black pictures that hang on the walls of command buildings. They are a bridge that links the realities of the past with the promise of today. The people who stood in the picture may be a small piece of the flag, but each one is an essential piece. Without them there would be a gaping hole; the picture would be incomplete. 

Sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) stand in the shape of a ribbon holding teal paper to recognize Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Navy

Though their names are lost to time, they are immortal in the living flag. We share and appreciate viral photos because we intrinsically see their value and meaning. The photo is no longer static, but alive with imagined movement, truth, and meaning. The sailors who stood on the parade field in 1917 tell us the same thing as the sailors on the USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77): together we can create something powerful.

Work Cited

  • Arthur Mole & John D. Thomas, The Human U.S. Shield; 30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich; Brig. Gen. Howard L. Lauback, commanding. Formation photograph of shield. Circa 1918. Library of Congress. Accessed June 29, 2022.

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