March 19, 2009

Soldier Boy & the Living Uncle Sam Roy Perkins was inducted into the armed service on August 21, 1918. He received his boot training at Camp Fremont in California, then was sent to New York where they remained in camp about one month before they shipped out for active duty and headed for France. They were on the ocean only a day or two when, on November 11, a wireless message reached their ship informing them that an armistice had been signed - the Great War was over! As it says in Roy's life story, "they turned back, a shipload of disappointed kids." They landed at Camp Lee, Virginia, where they remained until spring. While at Camp Lee, Roy was one of the soldiers who gathered for a photo called The Living Uncle Sam. There are 19,000 soldiers forming this image of Uncle Sam - Roy is standing in the white collar. His original picture hung in their home throughout his life - he and Lillian were very proud of it, and it has always been one of our family treasures. I got curious about this photo - wouldn't something like this be well-known? So I did what any researcher with my skill and training (none) would do...I Googled it! And this is what I found... Arthur Mole was an English born photographer and commercial artist who became famous for his series of "living photographs" made during World War I. For these photographs, Mole and his partner, John Thomas, used tens of thousands of soldiers, reservists, and nurses - and arranged them in various patriotic symbols. From the ground, the soldiers' formations looked meaningless. But from the 80 foot high viewing tower where Mole stood, you could see his intricately arranged artistic shapes and portraits. The blog Dark Roasted Blend has a great article called "People as Pixels in Monumental Art" that tells about these photographs In that article, Avi Abrams tells how Mole would stand on his viewing tower and shout into a megaphone or use a long pole with a white flag to arrange the tens of thousands of soldiers into position. He had to figure out the exact number of soldiers needed for each pattern, and every project took many weeks of meticulous preparation. Mole and Thomas visited many military camps throughout the country, creating these wonderful works of art. They donated all their income from this project to the families of the returning soldiers and to the government's efforts to rebuild their lives. The most well-known of Mole's photographs was the Living Portrait of Woodrow Wilson. For this photo, he used 21,000 troops at Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1918. Do you have an ancestor who was part of this project? Maybe one of these photos is among your family treasures! You can read more about this project here. And you can see more images at the Library of Congress gallery, not copyrighted. Courtesy of Dark Roasted Blend, Chicago Historical Society, and Library of Congress.

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