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Nov. 12 Art Minute: Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas, The United States Shield

Art Minute, Art of the Week, toledo museum of art
Arthur S. Mole (American, 1889–1983) and John D. Thomas (American, died 1947) The United States Shield. Gelatin-silver print, 1918. Louise and Stanley Levison Fund, 2002.3

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers. For he today that sheds his blood with me, Shall be my brother... –William Shakespeare, from Henry V

This remarkable hundred-year-old photograph shows the United States shield composed of 30,000 officers and men from the U.S. Army base Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. Camp Custer was built when the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 as a training camp for soldiers preparing to go to the Front. The image visually expresses not only patriotism, but the idea of the military as an organized, cohesive unit in which individuals work together for a greater purpose and where strong, familial bonds are forged.

During the War, Arthur Mole and John Thomas specialized in these “living photographs” in which they organized thousands of soldiers into patriotic shapes. The photos were taken from specially-built wooden towers 60–80 feet tall and took more than a week to plan. Using an 11 by 14-inch view camera, the exposure often took all day.

This work is currently on view at the Toledo Museum of Art in the exhibition Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion located in Levis Gallery.