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History, Military, Photograph, Mole & Thomas, U.S. Shield, 1918 (Sold)

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Arthur S. Mole (1889-1983) & John D. Thomas (photographers)
Woodrow Wilson
Mole & Thomas, Chicago, Illinois: 1919
Black and white photograph
12.75 x 10.25 inches, overall

Aerial photograph of 30,000 military officers and men at Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Michigan, forming an emblem based on the shield that is part of the design of the great seal of the United States, with 13 stars and 13 vertical stripes. The shield is in front of the bald eagle in the seal design, which was officially adopted by the U.S. Government in 1787. This is one of  a series of aerial view photographs of military personnel in formations produced by Mole & Thomas, a Chicago firm. They are famous for their grand patriotic bird’s-eye group shots at military bases after World War I in which they organized astonishing numbers of people to form designs they called “Living Emblems.” Between 9,000 and 30,000 military personnel, dressed in light or dark clothing according to the requirements of the design, would be positioned to form recognizable patriotic illustrations when seen from above.

Product description continues below.


Arthur S. Mole was a British-born commercial photographer who worked in Zion, Illinois. During and shortly after World War I, Mole traveled with his partner John D. Thomas from one military camp to another, posing thousands of soldiers to form gigantic patriotic symbols that they photographed from above. Each photo is inscribed with a title giving the subject, the number of enlisted men, officers and nurses participating, as well as the name of the commanding officer and the name and location of the base. Sometimes buildings and tents on the base can be seen in the background. These designs are remarkable inasmuch as they were not based on simple grids, but involved arranging the people in curving lines, leaving spaces between rows to form shadows, or having them wear hats or not, to create the shading and subtleties of an actual drawing.

Mole & Thomas’s subjects include the American eagle; a stars and stripes shield; the emblem of the United States Marines; the Statue of Liberty; and a profile portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, who guided the nation through World War I. The Wilson portrait, for example, was formed using 21,000 officers and men at Camp Sherman in Ohio and stretched over 700 feet. The “Human Liberty Bell” was composed from over 25,000 soldiers, arranged with Mole’s characteristic attention to detail to depict the crack in the bell. Mole and Thomas spent a week or more preparing for each of these  immense works. They were were taken from a 70- or 80-foot tower with an 11- by- 14-inch view camera. When the demand for these photographs dropped in the 1920s, Mole returned to his photography business in Zion. Photographs by Mole and Thomas are in numerous prestigious collections including the Chicago Historical Society, the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress.

Full title and publication information: The Human U.S. Shield/ 30,000 Officers and Men Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Mich. Brig Gen Howard L. Laubach Commanding. Mole & Thomas, 915 Medinah Building, Chicago, Illinois.


Jensen, Oliver. America’s Yesterdays — Images of Our Lost Past Discovered in the Photographic Archives of The Library of Congress. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc., 1978, pp. 248-49.

“Arthur S. Mole.” The Heartland Project: Illusions of Eden. (18 March 2003).

Collins, Dan. “Anamorphosis and the Eccentric Observer (Parts 1 and 2).” Leonardo Vol. 25, No. 1 and 2, 1992. Online at Arizona State University. (18 March 2003).

Additional information


20th Century