American flags everywhere - end of architectural photography as we know it? : LUSENET : Large format photography : One Thread

Hello all, This may sound like a weird question, but please understand it comes from someone who has been grieving heavily after the disaster and has a flag out on her own house (albeit a small one). Here in Eastern Pennsylvania there are American flags everywhere; they have completely changed the appearance of small towns and residential neighborhoods and even farmsteads around here. Are there other architectural/place photographers out there who fear for the disappearance of their beloved subject matter? I would not worry about it if the flags and signs were up for a few months or even a year, but given the patriotic fervor in this country, I suspect that many people will leave them up indefinitely. As some of you know, I am starting to photograph Main Streets and this week in Kutztown, PA the problem really hit me -- my shot selection is extremely limited if I am going to portray these American towns in their "normal" paradoxical states of timelessness and flux, NOT as they look in wartime, or whatever this time might be. Sometimes it is downright impossible to photograph a building -- some of these flags are huge and virtually cover entire facades.

Before the attacks, I felt somewhat the same way about the increased appearance of those stupid dribble lights and colorful cartoon flags on houses and big redundant banners on Main Street streetlights. For those of us who love architecture, it is frustrating to see older neighborhoods start looking like shopping malls, everybody with the same kind of decorations, covering up the indivudual character of their houses.

I would like to hear from people in other parts of the US --- are the towns near you also covered in flags? Do I need to rethink or postpone my project, Main Streets in America?

Thanks for any and all comments. Peace, Sandy

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 22, 2001


Do it now, quick. The opportunity may not come again.

-- Bill (, September 22, 2001.

This may be the BEST time to photograph Main Street in America. Your images will, do doubt, portray 'American' main streets, and definitely nobody else's.

For example, there are some towns in the Rockies that I like to photograph in B&W. There is nothing unique to these images, as these towns could probably exist in eastern Europe.

If you are after 'real' American main streets, this might be as real as you can get.


-- Andy Biggs (, September 22, 2001.

First of all it won't last. No doubt it is impossible to say how long they will fly. Secondly, I urge you to take advantage of this unique opportunity. I hope you are interested in architcture of streets as a reflection of a indwelling human spririt, a sense not just of place but of the inhabitants of these places. If so, the flags are another reflection of that spririt, the decorations are a special embellishment. These flags reflect a deep underlying sympathy and patriotism which is just waiting for a skilled photographer to manifest. The best most spiritual photographs of this instant in US history, however done, will live forever as a statement of a transient yet very heartfelt emotion long after the war is over and the flags are folded. Much like the tears on a face, or the glint of pride in an eye. It will require great skill but surely is worth the effort to capture this. Because this unprecedented paroxysm will not last, we must make our negatives now to record it forever.

-- j.ryder (, September 22, 2001.

I find it utterly amazing that an American would view the presence of many American flags as an interference with their little project. In this time of national mourning you need to rethink your priorities.

-- Richard W. Bennett (, September 22, 2001.

Richard, I view the presence of many American flags with mixed feelings. I am not alone in that view. Often mass showings of so-called patriotic solidarity precede extremely scary actions. Many of these flags are not just memorials for the victims of the attacks, but proclaim a warrior mentality against our enemies. In the nuclear age, that is frightening.

On the other hand, as a memorial, and as a visual tribute, I find the flags absolutely glorious and beautiful. As I said, it would be fine if they were all up for a year if that is their purpose.

I consider photographing America (and that has always been my subject) to be a high calling. I am proud of it and I love this country. I consider photography to be of great importance as an art form and as a way to communicate complex information and emotions. I imagine you would agree with that statement or you wouldn't be reading this forum.

My Main Streets project is about showing what we have built over two or three hundred years on this continent -- our houses, towns, and cities. The architecture itself is a testament to our history, perseverance, and sometimes, our failings. I believe American architecture deserves its own record.

I have always been curious about what other serious architectural photographers think about decorations such as flags and banners on houses. The city of Savannah is renowned for its architecture and attracts visitors for that reason. When I went there in February, there were no banners or mobiles or flags on the houses -- I think there must be an ordinance against it.

Perhaps that is a question for another time, and I didn't mean to offend anyone by asking it now. But this forum has a practical purpose and I have practical questions. They affect everyone who photographs architecture.

After all, on Thursday night the President asked of us one thing and one thing only: live your normal life. Let's face it, America will not appear to be living a normal life as long as her towns are emblazoned with flags.

I do agree with J. Ryder --- somebody should definitely record these displays as expressions of a turbulent and mournful time. I would guess that there are plenty of folks out there doing it for newspapers and magazines. Undoubtedly, better than I could.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 22, 2001.


Ok I'd like to give this one a try. I just hope that I can get my point across. I agree with a lot of what you said, actually MOST of it. But I do not agree with your comment about the U.S. Flag(my statements will apply to State Flags and Flags of other Country's as well). The flag is a very important cherished symbol. And sadly I have found myself thinking about this more and more in the past five or ten years. I do have a problem with the Flag being displayed, more and more every single day that passes! As a matter of fact it caused me to not make a very pleasing exposure this very morning in downtown Denver!! But my problem is NEVER with the # or the size of the flags being displayed. My problem is with well meaning Citizens that have no knowlege of how to respect our Most Charished Symbol, the U.S. Flag. I see this every second of every day as I spend a great amount of time on the road. I am not exactly a Grumpy Old Fart (Ok so there will be those who disagree) but I am 42years old and is has NOT been that long since I was in Grammer School and that is where I learned the importance of the Flag, and how to provide the care it deserves. I do not know or really care when or why we quit teaching this, but it is time we all take on the responsibility and either LEARN OR TEACH! After setting up this morning with the 5x7, I started looking at this wonderful building that is Properly Displaying OUR Grand Old Flag, I spotted not one, but no less than 4(FOUR!!!) vehicals on the street in front of this building that were desicrating the flag. One had a large flag slamed in the trunk and dragging on the ground, the others had flags that were torn and shredded because they were not aproved for wind speeds over 200 GD miles per hour. And one of those torn flags was on the front of a Pickup Truck, across the grill and judging from the window stickers may have belonged to a Marine!! So Sandy I ask you to ask yourself, if those flags that you are not happy with, were displayed correctly, would your opinion be the same? I think NOT! Because as others have said WE should take advantage of the moment. I fear it will not last...

Very Sincerly.


PS-The above is addressed to all people reading this forum. Not just those in the United States of America. If you have questions about the flag and it's care contact an OLD Boy Scout, a VFW Post, or the Color Guard of you local Police or Fire Dept.

-- R.L.(Mac) McDonald (, September 22, 2001.


Timing, Timing, Timing! I am in the middle(they are finally in the washer) of printing a few old negs for a friend. We like I said I share your opinion and your discription "looking like shopping malls" is how I feel many times but, I think we may be wrong! The last photo that I printed was a street in what I suspect will be identified as a small town in Iowa, some time in the early 1900's (both horses and early autos). There are not only flags but every window awning, Store front, and comercial vehical is covered with advertisments! And it just looks like a normal day! So I opened up a book that was just given to me by a Dear Friend. The book is "Seeing Salt Lake City-the legacy of the Shipler Photographers" This is a Great book if you have a chance to look at a copy. But as I am going through the book, it becomes apparrent that what a lot of use want to edit out, in our quest to record "Clean Pure" History is really part of what we should be recording. And it becomes very clear, that Clean and Pure Architectural Photography may not have ever existed the way we sometimes think it did. But I will probably not stop looking for those clean Shots, and I suspect a lot of people will be doing the same.


-- R.L.(Mac) McDonald (, September 22, 2001.

Sorry! Someday I will learn to read. Before I SUBMIT! It has been a long day....

-- R.L.(Mac) McDonald (, September 22, 2001.

You think YOU'VE got trouble with subject matter? Take a look at this review of a current show in New York by Nancy Davenport:

She has been working on a project for three years, making composites about a kind of universalized urban terrorism, which have suddenly become uncannily like real photos in the news. Her show went up five days before the disaster.

In response to your question, I would wait and see. I can understand that you want the subject to be the architecture and not the historical moment (if it is possible not to represent the historical moment, but that is a much bigger question). Work on another project for a while or get caught up on the printing backlog (everyone has a printing backlog, right?). There is a building in renovation I have been wanting to photograph for two or three years now, and as soon as the scaffolding comes down, I'll be there.

-- David Goldfarb (, September 22, 2001.

The end of architectural photography as we know it? Gimme a break! You have the opportunity to record a snap-shot in time. Building were built by people, with an idea and a spirit. Today, you have an even more evident expression of mans expressed in a spirit of patriotism. This adds character and emotion to any building which you would photograph. If you want natural architecture head for the Grand Canyon. That's Gods architecture. If you want mans architecture, take it as it is, and love it. Part of photography is the use of symbols which give greater meaning and depth to the photograph. They are around you abundance. If you don't get the message and are not interested in capturing this unique moment in time... Take up wood-working. Your're in the wrong hobby/business. With respect.

-- Richard Boulware (, September 22, 2001.

I worked as an assistant on an archeological dig of an historic American house site. One morning we returned and found that someone had moved some rocks around and placed some old junk under them. It was intended to fool the archaeologist into thinking he had found some significant new artifacts. It was a stupid stunt and I thought it ruined the site. I was very surprised when the archaeologist started drawing and cataloging the new feature and catalog in the same way as the pre-existing part of the site. When I asked him why since it was obviously bogus he said "it is part of the site and its use." To me it was a very powerful message about what is authentic and accepting the chaotic juxtaposition of past and present. I suggest that Sandy reconsider the illusions that he/she is living under and how that is impacting his/her work. The attitude that flags or other recent elements in a picture is somehow "inauthentic" or a disturbance of normal "timelessness and flux" makes me think that his/her work is really a wistful and sentimental conception. That is fine if that is the kind of work he/she is aiming for, but it is shallow as hell.

-- darter (, September 22, 2001.

If he doesn't want the flags, he doesn't want the flags. So what. And for those who bitch & complain he isn't patriotic or I am not, how many of you moaners are veterans? If not that, how many did not vote in the last election? Or missed other elections for trivial reasons. Not wanting a ton of flags to block viewing the buildings is not unpatriotic. And not waving flags does not make one unpatriotic either. Your idea of showing patriotism is not a requirement for anyone else. After all, it was the 'super patriots' who imprisoned American Citizens who were of japanese ancestry... racism pure & simple led by Roosevelt & gladly supported by the patriots of the time while villifying those who would defend the 'dirty japs'. Now you same people will villify a photographer for wanting a photograph relatively free of flags when nothing is wrong with him wanting that. If the guy doesn't want the flags, so what?!

-- Dan Smith (, September 23, 2001.


I almost posted to this thread earlier. I'm glad I didn't because I was pretty hot about the Flag issue. So hopefully I won't inflame anyone but here are my thoughts. First let me say that much of my career has been as an architectural educator and critic. Photography is a very serious passion. Ok, my thoughts.

Like an above post I am 42 years old. My parents generation, my grandparents generation, and my great grandparents generation wera all veterans. I grew up in a small midwestern town.

Flags were flown daily at all communal institutions. e.g. banks, schools, and yes gas stations. Everybody flew flags on all the public holidays, such as the 4th, President's day (although I remember when it was individual's birthdays, Veteran's day, etc. The flag was very important to my family and my family's friends. There was nothing unusual about seeing flags adorning buildings and to read your concern that this will be an in-authentic time strikes me as either ill informed about a greater portion of America or as aesthetically pre-determined.

Savannah is not a real town in the sense that tourism is its primary source of income and the image of the city is its primary resource. There are ordinances protecting the downtown squares of Savannah (the most historic portion) and in this sense Savannah should be regarded the same as colonial Williamsburg. Both are incredibly beautiful cities, however, both embody carefully constructed commercial images. In this sense they are not synthetic (resulting from natural growth and development).

Living towns and main streets will always be the outcome of the range of tastes of the people who live and work there. In this sense they are dynamic, changing seasonally, economically, and aesthetically. The drippy lights that Sandy decried are an incredibly moving sight during the holiday season in my home town. For me a project hoping to document the main streets of America would not be based on a pre- conceived aesthetic desire, rather would celebrate the present, complete with its kitsch, bad taste, messiness, pride, and inherent beauty.

Anyway, those are my thoughts.

-- Kevin (, September 23, 2001.

Hi again, it's Sandy the original poster. So you don't have to guess at the proper pronoun to use, I'm female.

It's been an invigorating discussion -- the occasional abuse is helping me solidify my resolve when it comes to what I must photograph. We are all undoubtedly experiencing uncertainty about the future now. But I am firmly convinced that it is more important than ever to keep making pictures of America. I do not consider this a trivial matter.

I gotta say, however, that some of you have an awfully narrow view of what photography can or should do. If I don't want to record changing events, I should take up another medium? There are plenty of fine photographers reacting to changing events and a lot of them are working for daily newspapers or weekly news magazines. You don't need me to do that. What I do have is a very firm sense of what has been disappearing from America (call that a long-term changing event if you want) and a distinct vision of how to portray those places. Yes, I do go out with an idea of what I want to say. It could be argued that a photographer, artist, or writer who goes out without any ideas and simply reacts uncritically to whatever is in front of her is the one who is shallow.

The problem with the flags, for me visually, is not their symbolism but their sameness. I am definitely including flags in some pictures, and of course there were flags up before September 11. But now I fear every picture will include a flag. The towns I have visited this week have put them up on every light post so that the streetscape panoramas are going to look rather similar whether in Kutztown, PA or Bisbee, Arizona. This is also my objection to the dribble lights. Sure, they look pretty at night around Christmastime. (In the daytime they look ridiculous, like you've hung plastic six-pack holders all along the roofline.) But in my neighborhood at least, so many people have these lights, and leave them up all year, that the street looks like a lighted mall, every avenue the same. When I was a kid, in December we drove or walked around different neighborhoods to view the Christmas displays - all different colors, different sizes, different configurations, fantastic! Can you imagine a family doing that now to look at all the white dribble lights?

Kevin, one thing I am not is ill-informed about the greater part of Anerica. I have traveled alone, slowly, to all fifty states, none of it on interstates. What strikes me the most is that over the past twenty years America's delightful diversity of regional architecture and the idiosyncrasy of personal expression has been inexorably subverted by mass tastes in culture, imposed on us by television and advertising and greed. Homogeneous subdivisions, all houses the same, the same bland designs sold all over the country. The same banners and lights and flags on front porches and town streetlamps. Oh, don't get me wrong, I am happily including signs and window displays and crazy kitschy stuff in my Main Street photographs! I've already done a book on unadorned architecture -- this one will be different, that's why I chose Main Streets. I just don't want it all to look the same.

Cheers, Sandy

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 23, 2001.

Taking ourselves a little too seriously, they are just pictures and it has been done numerous times.

-- (, September 23, 2001.

I had to deal with this last week for a commercial building, and noone had the access key for the area to remove the flag up front (it was covering the front part of the building.) A bit of photoshop work and it is gone!!!

-- andy ongun (, September 23, 2001.

Sandy, I figure you already know these things but I am not quite willing to give up yet. Yes, there are many photographers trying to capture the flag. Our newspaper had a feature spread where there were many perfectly ordinary images of flags. None of them captured much of the spirit that hangs with them. But you must work with a large format camera and if we have learned anything on this forum it is that large format photography, and large format photographs are different. A large format photograph of a flag adorned street may reveal a deeper underlying emotion. Furthermore the additional contemplation required for a large format image by the photographer may reveal additional content not offered by quicker formats. And still further someone with your obvious background and study of these very American ideas and environments will explore these themes of American streetscapes in a very unique fashion whatever the format. It is precisely because of the depth of your travels, experience, seriousness and methods that we can hope you will reveal something about this that can only come from you. We, and you won't know unless you try. My wife tells me she saw a feature on tv about a veteran war photographer who happened to be at the World Trade Center that day. She says his photoraphers were vastly better than anything else, more beaufifully spiritual and mourning. His experience taught him how to say exactly what he thought and felt and exactly what needed to be said. We can understand the experience differently because of his work. He was the exact right person at the right moment. Perhaps you are as well. Who better than you to show us what so many flags mean across all 50 states in so many communities, to reveal a symbolic unity among all of our differences. Please don't assume you are not without thinking and feeling about this opportunity to express something from within you that may need to be said to all the rest of us. I don't know what your photographs will say but please bring your careful attachments and large format vision to the flag draped American streetscape. Who knows there may be a book in it. Please, I hope you understand, I think this is a very special time and requires some very special photography. May we each contribute. And when you visit Lexington, look me up on my lovely street.

-- j.ryder (, September 23, 2001.

Hello Sandy,

You wrote:

"Before the attacks, I felt somewhat the same way about the increased appearance of those stupid dribble lights and colorful cartoon flags on houses and big redundant banners on Main Street streetlights. For those of us who love architecture, it is frustrating to see older neighborhoods start looking like shopping malls, everybody with the same kind of decorations, covering up the indivudual character of their houses."

As an architect I can tell you that we regularly incorporate those big redunant "banners" into our design concepts. They are colorful, playful, decorative and create a sense of scale and space. They are part of the festive feel of towns, squares, and villages. They portray society and societal concepts.

I suggest that by photographing the flags at this time you "are" photgraphing America. America in a time of string emotional out crying, anger, sympathy and empathy. I am please to have my projects photgraphed with banners and flags. Architecture does not exist exclusive of people, art, and society. Architecture is part of society and reflects the state of society at a particular point in time.

Go out and make your photoghraph. I hope that 10, 25, or 50 years from now you can look back and realize that you photographed America at a very important time in her history. Just like Timothy O'Sullivan, George Tice, And Paul Strand to name a few, each generation has those moments that define the period. This may one of them. Press on and do what you do.

Good Luck, Mike

Michael J. Kravit, AIA Architect/Photographer

-- Mike Kravit (, September 23, 2001.

I still have not absorbed the full impact of the disaster. I am sorry for all who lost friends, family, their footing.

However if/hen the flags are gone, you'll still have the white plastic lawn/patio chairs to deal with- in the USA, Italy or Iceland, where ever you may be shooting. Place them on IX if they are clean.

Good luck.

-- Hans Berkhout (, September 23, 2001.

As a contributor from the UK, I would like to add to this thread just to say that the American flag can be seen very prominently here too. In the small suburban town, south of London, where I live, the flag has been flown on the side of buildings, in windows and cars. We even see lots of people wearing clothes with the American flag on the front, or 'New York New York' on the back. On the whole I feel that this is not a sign of aggression to an enemy, but a valuable symbol of our shared grief, sympathy and common humanity. We must try to carry on with our normal lives, but it is difficult to know what 'normal' is after such an event. History doesn't always progress at a slow relentless pace. It often veers dramatically off course, and our lives, culture, art, architecture and way of seeing the world around us shifts accordingly. Though any photography outside the immediate events may seem a trivial occupation right now, I suspect that photographs made by those who work with the steady gaze of the view camera, not just in the immediate turbulence, but in coming months and years, will create work of historical and philosophical importance. We all document the world around us, and yes Sandy, we do need you to record this time in YOUR way.


-- Stephen Vaughan (, September 24, 2001.

Hans, I usually place them on the back porch. Cheers.

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 24, 2001.

Hi Sandy. I think I understand. I bought a car for my college bound daughter on Ebay and flew to Minneapolis 1900 miles from my burg in Central Nevada to pick it up. Beginning in southern MN I found myself taking offramps from Interstate 90 on purpose so that I could just enjoy looking at the Main Streets. (A really bad idea when you've got to go 1900 miles in 3 days) What a quality and individuality we've lost in America. Those main street store fronts and buildings both large and small were done either on a Mom and Pop's idea or the bigger better ones were done by regional architects that hadn't too much idea what was selling well 800 miles away. Ultimately the main street degenerates into old residences turned vacuum cleaner repair place, and finally the "new" area that has the Mcdonalds and the 4 square of gasoline stations. All the same, all embarrassingly shallow in the "look" that is America 2001. (Flags wrapped around the grille of a pickup truck with gunracks) As far as the flags, I don't really have 2Ę to offer other than if your photo's will be dated as to when taken it'll be a poignant reminder that on September 11 2001 our nation did turn another corner on it's journey

-- Jim Galli (, September 24, 2001.

Sandy: I have been thinking about your question for two days and finaly decided to add my two cents worth. In my humble opinion, I would suggest waiting to finish the project. I am one of the older folks on this forum, a former serviceman, and I was eight years old when WWII ended, so I have an inborn love of our country. That said, I believe this is not the time to finish your project. As much as I love our country and our flag, that is not the scope of your project. It would be like taking pictures of all the towns during Christmas and having a book with Christmas lights in every picture. I would certainly include flags in a picture or two, but not every picture. Not wanting flags in every picture does not make you any less patriotic than not wanting churches or Christmas decorations in every shot makes you a non-believer. This time of intense patriotism and flag waving is wonderful at this time of national crisis, but like most other things, it, too, shall pass.

I wish you great success with your project.


-- Doug Paramore (, September 24, 2001.

Hi Sandy -

Interesting question. Here's my $0.02.

I like to photograph buildings, too. There's lots of old ones here in Charleston, some protected as historical sites, most not. At various times, a particular property might have been a drug store, a grocery, apartments, or just sat empty. Most have changed considerably since they were built.

My point is that buildings and Main Street donít exist in a vacuum. They reflect what the people who live and work in them are thinking and feeling. It just so happens that in late 2001, we're hanging flags on them.

It may not be what you had in mind, but I'd say shoot the pictures anyway.

Peace and good light.

-- Kevin Bourque (, September 24, 2001.

Thanks to all the people who wrote thoughtful answers. It's very interesting to think about all this. Just one quick comment to add, I think there's a place for photography of buildings alone. I feel a great deal of individual character and history coming from the building itself -- its shape, its details, the materials it was made from, and its place in the landscape. For 20 years I've photographed houses without any people, cars, or decorations in the pictures. That doesn't mean they're inauthentic, it just means the pictures are about the houses.

You all should check out this wonderful site to see some lovely pictures of flags, memorials, and mourners around the world:

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 25, 2001.




AS a fine art photog and a large format photog thsi is a precious moment when a slow moving large format can record the spirt of a nation.

Tell ya what , if you find a wonderful subject matter of a building and you want to photograph it but the flag interfers with your previsualization of the inal print, THEN TRY THIS... ( I feel so like larry king when I do that)



-- Edward Burlew (, September 27, 2001.


The flag displays to me reflect a unique moment in U.S. history (though a terribly sad one) which we have the privilege to witness.

I an trying to catalog the flag displays before they are ruined or vandalized, taken down, and forgotten. This includes the ones that have sprouted after the inital shock, many of which are commercial or which trivialize the events of 9/11 (e.g., car dealers giving out T-shirts and similar profiteering.)

I am simply trying to record to the best of my ability (severely limited by lack of time and talent) on the theory that the meaning of these images and these events will evolve. In 30 years photographs of this time will still matter, even the lousy ones that might have been ignored if they captured more ordimary times.

-- Charles Mackay (, September 28, 2001.

Oh, good Charles, I'm glad somebody is finally doing it himself instead of insisting that I do it. I hope these displays are recorded all over the country; you are right, it is a special time in spite of the horror and sadness that precipitated the response.

Best of luck with your project.

Cheers, Sandy

-- Sandy Sorlien (, September 28, 2001.

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