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We’ve just come back from a trip to Michigan. While we were there we visited the Music Museum just outside Traverse City. This museum has a fantastic display of mechanical musical instruments, but I’m not going to talk about them today. While the music was toe-tapping and made me smile, something even more interesting caught my eye.

On our way into the guided tour area of the museum we passed a couple of mosaic-like pictures hanging on the wall. One was a picture of President Woodrow Wilson, the other a shield composed of stars and stripes. The guide directed our attention to them, pointing out that each picture was composed of hundreds of soldiers standing on marks to form the shapes.

“Living Photograph” of Woodrow Wilson
created by Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas

“Living Photograph” of American Shield
Original created by Arthur S. Mole and John D. Thomas

I stepped close to the glass and peered at the photos. Sure enough, I could see the heads of the people. The guide pointed out hole in a line and another spot where a man leaned against his comrade, ready to faint away. The soldiers had to stand out in the hot sun for hours while the photographers lined everyone up just so to take an aerial photo. Sometimes a fellow or two didn’t make it to the end shot. The guide also pointed out another man who didn’t quite match the line he stood in, offering the suggestion that he was pulled in at the last minute to plug a hole caused by the collapse of someone else.

The photos were done by commercial photographer Arthur S. Mole and his partner John D. Thomas. Mole and Thomas went around the country to military
camps creating people pictures. The largest “living photograph” was an American shield taken in 1918 at Camp Custer, Michigan.  To form the shield 30,000 military personnel stood on ground markers that stretched out a quarter of a mile from the 70 to 80 foot tall tower where the camera was perched.

The photos fascinated me. Hundreds of people crammed together creating a picture that could only be viewed aerially. Although each man was interesting in his own way—each had his own personality, his own job, and his own life—an aerial picture of that single man wasn’t very exciting. He was just a dot on the black background. But when all the men stood together, just so—in their proper spots, they created something unique and out of the ordinary.

So it is with words. A single word can be interesting—at least they are to me. As a teen I read the dictionary like others would read a novel. As an adult I’ve had a multitude of discussions with my husband about word definitions, discussions that always end in one, or both of us, thumbing through the dictionary to see who is right. But a single words is just … a single word. As interesting as any word might be, string several together and something even more attention-grabbing is created—a means of communication. Put pages upon pages of sentences together and you create a book—a fantastic vehicle that transports readers to other places, other times, and provides mental photos to review whenever they choose to do so.

I’ve never seen photographs like the ones I’ve posted here from the Music Museum, but I don’t think I’ll be forgetting them any time soon. Like a good book, that won’t fade from my memory, these photos are impressed on my mind.

Have you ever seen photos like these?

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