Article by Avi Abrams

Human Pixels: Group Art during the days of early photography

Just before the World War One the country needed patriotic images, aiming to recover national identity with the help of the rising art of photography. Arthur Mole (1889-1983) together with John Thomas used their 11 x 14-inch view camera to create the so-called "living photographs", done on a monumental scale. By arranging thousands of soldiers (reservists, or nurses) in various patriotic symbols and photographing them from above, they were able to use lines of perspective to transform meaningless masses into artistic shapes and even portraits. (See more images at the Library of Congress gallery, not copyrighted)

"Sincerely yours, Woodrow Wilson, 1918"
21,000 officers and men, Camp Sherman, Chillicothe, Ohio

"The Human U.S. Shield, 1918"
30,000 officers and men, Camp Custer, Battle Creek, Michigan

From his 80-feet viewing tower, Arthur Mole would shout into his megaphone, or even use a long pole with a white flag to position tens of thousands of soldiers on the field and then nail the pattern to the ground with miles of lace borders. He also had to figure out the exact numbers of troops required and the final perspective at the viewpoint. The monumentality of each project called for many weeks of meticulous preparation work.

"Living Uncle Sam, 1919"

"The Human American Eagle, 1918"
12,500 officers, nurses and men; Camp Gordon, Atlanta, Ga.

"Living Emblem of the United States Marines, 1919"

"The Human Liberty Bell, 1918"
25000 officers and men at Camp Dix, New Jersey

See many other Arthur Mole & John Thomas works (in higher resolution) at the Hammer Gallery.

"A Living Flag, 1917" (Mayhart Studio, Chicago)

Based in Zion, Illinois, Arthur Mole visited many army, marine and navy camps across the country, carrying out his inspired & monumental work. He was clearly influenced by the patriotic spirit of his fellow Americans during a "life during wartime", as well as driven by his personal spiritual convictions. In the end, Mole and Thomas donated the entire income from their endeavors to the families of the returning soldiers and the government's efforts to re-build their lives.

"The Zion Shield, 1920".
All images courtesy Chicago Historical Society.

The other great overview of his work can be found in "Cabinet Magazine" article by Louis Kaplan, Associate professor of history and Theory at the University of Toronto.

Other Connoisseurs of Early Group Photography

One of the most notable photographers of "living people groups" was Eugene Omar Goldbeck. Along with the large scale work, he also took photographic portraits of important personalities, such as Albert Einstein.
A detail of larger group, made as late as 1947:

Indoctrination Division, Air Training Command, Lackland
Air Base San Antonio, TX, 1947

Other unknown photographers:

Grenzhausen, Germany
1st Field Artillery Brigade, 1st Division, 1919

209th Engineers, Camp Sheridan, Alabama, 1919

I have mixed feeling about the rise of "large scale mass photography" as an art form. Many "communal" ideas were taking shape at the start of the century, with majority of artists / sculptors not considering such experimentations as depersonalizing or evil. But look what the all-too-eager dictators did with "mass performance" art when they came to power in the Thirties. It became an integral part of the totalitarian art and ideological hysteria. The spiritual "unification" principle in the early works was perversely transformed into "cult" and even "occult" mass performances of frenzied crowds.

Living Masses of People as Totalitarian Art

You know of course about Nazi Torchlight Parades (documented during many Nazi Party Rallies in Nuremberg):

Some installation could be considered "inspired", even urban masterpieces, such as "The Light Cathedral" of Albert Speer and Eberhard von der Trappen, designed for the closing ceremonies of the 1936 Berlin Olympics:

(Source article)

But ultimately, we know the purpose behind Nazi party rallies, where de-humanizing mass movements (containing, some say, even elements of the occult rites) added to the whole political hysteria action.

Closer to our times: North Korean Parades

Totalitarian Esthetics at their "worst"...
Their own version of torchlight parades:

(image credit: Potatohai)

(image credit: Rodrigo Bravo)

Children are made to participate in such "cultural events" from a very young age".

Watch the giant human mosaic in the background, composed of 15,000 or more individuals each holding a colored placard. The mosaic changes with the music.
Children's Parade at Arirang / Mass Games in 2005:

"20,000 North Korean middle school students form an image of North Koreans with flip cards which become a gigantic human mosaic screen during the 100,000 men mass gymnastics performance":

(image credit: J. Chung)

These examples are the opposite of "living" photographs, as envisioned by Arthur Mole and others, as they deaden the individuality into one gray unrecognizable whole.

Opening ceremonies, Moscow Olympics, 1980.

Finally, a slightly shocking but fresh approach

Spencer Tunick makes his artistic formations from thousands of NAKED people. His works convey entirely different sensibilities than the usual group photography. According to Spencer, "the nude form becomes abstract due to the sheer number of people so closely placed together" - plus it places human body in stark contrast with the cold industrial landscapes.

The Wikipedia article lists in detail his latest international exploits, but here is the site where you can sign in to participate yourself, if you live close to the next planned installation. (this time it's Amsterdam).

700 naked people arranged in a theatre in Bruges:

(images courtesy: i-20.com)

Since 1992, Tunick has been arrested five times while working outdoors, but released shortly thereafter. You can order the prints of his work here. Wild idea: these happenings are organized, but nobody had the guts yet to set up the similar thing as a flash mob.

Permanent Link...
Category: Art,Photography
Related Posts:
Anti-US Posters from North Korea


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dont see anything artistic in spencer tunick's works..

Blogger Roger Coss said...

From one of the pixels,
As a pixel in Spencer's work many times now I can say Spencer is very much trying to show the humanity of the models, though not the individuality-except in his portraits of individuals.
To read accounts by those of us who pose, to see more of Spencer's work, including some of his lesser known individual portraits, come to http://www.spencertunickforum.org


Blogger B. Durbin said...

I'm impressed. I work for a photography company, and you know how much of a pain in the butt it is to get a class of high school seniors to form something as simple as a 0 or a 7?

Blogger Avi Abrams said...

No kidding... I have the same problem trying to line up two of my little boys.

Blogger B. Durbin said...

Of course, if we're talking flip cards, there's always the classic Caltech Rose Bowl Prank.

Incidentally, I highly recommend the book Legends of Caltech and its sequel More Legends of Caltech. Utterly chock-full of various pranks, as well as an apparent guide to those scriptwriters who created Real Genius.

Though I have to say that the ones a particular friend of the family was involved in were not written up, probably because nobody would break silence, and so there must be many more pranks which have never made it into print.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check this http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X76ZIGQgBWg

Another amazing coordinated koreans.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Air Force Photo: The other side of the story: On a hot Sat (our day off) we were told to put on white T shirts and fall out. We were marched to the drill field and told were to stand...and that is all. Some guy in a tower took our photos. Some time later these photos were for sale in the BX. Where we told anything...NO, did we get any free photos...NO were we even thanked...of course not we were all Pvt's. Pvt James R. Garrity, Sq BN 4, Fl 2100, Lackland AFB, Tex...some 61 years ago...of ya it was very hot out

Blogger Infographicmedia said...

If you like this you should realy see this Dutch commercial! Check: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J5Uw7zLeacc

Anonymous David said...

Oh come on, zxr!! If you're going to criticise Tunic's work, give us some sort of an argument and explain why - then we can have a debate about it. As it is, you sound as though you expect Tunic to curl up and dissolve just because you have spoken! Personally, i think his cheeky works are fantastic and the fact that they goad people enough to get him arrested is illustration enough that he is making some kind of impact. This kind of re-evaluation and change in perception of the human body sounds very positive to me - all about appreciating humanity for what it is and not succumbing to the illusions. So here's to him!


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