Arthur S. Mole —1889-1983— was an English commercial photographer who took a series of striking and innovative “living photographs” of American soldiers during and after World War One. Working with his American colleague John D. Thomas, Mole organized and arranged thousands of soldiers into configurations that, seen from the ground or directly above, would look like a shapeless crowd. But through the lens of his 11 x 14 camera from atop the specially constructed 80 foot tower , they formed meaningful —indeed iconic— images. The photographs were commissioned by the US government both to raise troop morale and raise money by selling copies to the public.
The Mole-Thomas oeuvre was recently the subject of an exhibition at (and vintage silver gelatin prints are currently available from) the Hammer Gallery in Chicago. The originals, of course, are both beautiful and meaningful; but excellent copies of most of the images can be obtained from the Library of Congress.
Gallery owner Carl Hammer says, “I see modern photographers with all the technology we have these days trying to do the same as these two guys did almost 100 years ago, and I still think they did it best and they did it first. It really is very clever how they managed to get so many soldiers in the shots, they realised using the same amount of soldiers for each row they would lose the image in the background. It must have been incredible for the soldiers to be part of these photos and to be part of this slice of history.”
Working from his base outside Chicago, in Zion, Illinois, Mole traveled to military bases and approached his photographs with the detail and precision of a military campaign.
Mole was a master of perspective. His “living picture” of the Statue of Liberty was taken in 1918 at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. It required 18,000 men —12,000 in the torch at the top, and only 17 in the base at the bottom. The men at the tip of the torch are half a mile away from the men at the base. Mole used flags to indicate placements in advance and to communicate with the troops in real time. The temperature reached 105 degrees, and many men, wearing wool uniforms, fainted.
Mole would sketch the outline of the image on his lens and then have the serried ranks fill it in. His nephew Joseph Mole remarked about this 1918 portrait of President Woodrow Wilson (comprising 21,000 officers and men at Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio), “When it came to the day of the photograph Arthur would then be able to put all the pieces together, he could say to 157 men ‘move there and you can be Woodrow Wilson’s ear.'”
The “living Uncle Sam” was a post-war work, involving 19,000 officers and men at Camp Lee, Virginia, on 13 January 1919.
Arthur Mole’s collaborator was photographer John D. Thomas. Their US Shield, was taken at Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Michigan, in 1918.
One hundred officers and 9,000 enlisted men formed the Marine Corps emblem at Parris Island. It would take Mole and Thomas a week to work out the shot, but only half an hour to march the men into position.
The 1917 Liberty Bell —including the famous crack— required 25,000 men from Fort Dix, New Jersey.
Arthur S. Mole.