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CR: The New Centennial Review 1.1 (2001) 107-139
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A Patriotic Mole
A Living Photograph
Southern Illinois University
In his War and Peace in the Global Village, the media savant Marshall McLuhan writes: "When our identity is in danger, we feel certain that we have a mandate for war. The old image must be recovered at any cost." 1 In taking up the photo-cultural formations of Arthur Mole, I would like to posit the opposite as well. "When we have a mandate for war, we feel certain that our identity is in danger. The old image must be recovered at any cost." The so-called living photographs and living insignia of Arthur Mole are photo-literal attempts to recover the old image of national identity at the very moment when the United States entered the Great War in 1917. In these spectacular images, thousands of military troops (and other groups) 2 were choreographed by the photographer in artful formations that reveal patriotic symbols, emblems, or military insignia from a bird's-eye perspective that mimes aerial photography. Mole's photos assert, bolster, and recover the image of American national identity via photographic imaging. Moreover, these military formations serve as rallying points to support U.S. involvement in the war and to ward off any isolationist tendencies. In life during [End Page 107] wartime, Mole's patriotic images function as "nationalist propaganda" 3 and instantiate photocultural formations of citizenship for both the participants and the consumers of these group photographs. 4
There is not much written about this itinerant photographer, and Mole appears not to have left any diaries of his photographic adventures. 5 But we do know that he was born in England in 1889, that he immigrated to the United States at the age of 12, and that he lived out his years in Florida where he died in 1983. Mole's foreign-born status is surely an important factoid for his life's writing, and it foregrounds the question of citizenship from the beginning. The shift from "God Save the Queen" to "God Bless America" would help to explain why this photographer became obsessed with group portraits of military formations devoted to the symbols and emblems of American nationalism from Uncle Sam to the Stars and Stripes. Not being a native son, Mole bends over backward or cranes his neck forward from his aerial photographic position—often working in a self-fabricated rickety tower seventy to eighty feet above the ground—so that he can prove his patriotism to his newly adopted Fatherland. The living insignia become the photographic proofs of how he pledges allegiance to the United States. In this way, the darkroom development process also functions as a naturalization process and helps to recast Mole from an alien British subject to a full-fledged American citizen.
Given this trans-Atlantic leap in citizenship, it should come as no surprise to learn that the American flag served as the overdetermined subject for Mole's first image transforming a military unit into pointillistic pixels to form a national symbol. This is his Living American Flag (Fig. 1) which was taken to commemorate Memorial Day of that fateful bellicose year of 1917. This photocultural formation of a patriotic display consists of 10,000 sailors at the Naval Training Station in Great Lakes, Illinois, who are snapped by Mole during an act of excessive flag waving on the eve of America's entry into the Great War. The mimetic likeness of Mole's Living Flag goes so far as to appear as if it were animated and rippling in the wind. In addition to satisfying the British-born photographer's overcompensatory need to feel like an American, the image is perfectly suited to the soldier-subjects who constitute the flag and who lose themselves in the process. For this military group [End Page 108] [Begin Page 110] portrait enacts the way in which each soldier who stands phallically rigid at attention gives himself over to the symbolic order (which is represented by and inscribed as...