Only a few days after Robert Carley C’82 stood in his Connecticut office on Sept. 11, 2001, watching plumes of white smoke envelop New York City, he noticed a single bright spot sparkling through the nation’s tragedy and panic.
It came, oddly enough, in the form of a super-sized pumpkin on display at his local liquor store. Someone had painted an American flag onto the gourd, and after stopping to examine it and snap a photograph, Carley began to notice more flags appearing on unusual canvases: barns, trees, houses, trucks, boats, bars, pizza boxes.
“Patriotic tributes were springing up all over,” he says. “Americans had turned to our symbol of the flag and rallied around it, but since traditional flags were selling out, people were improvising to create their own. I knew I was living through a unique time in American history, and I wanted to capture as many of those [tributes] as I could.”
An artist and budding photographer, Carley began to travel throughout Connecticut and New York and anywhere else he’d heard about an interesting flag representation. Before he knew it, nearly a full decade had passed, and he had visited 43 states, photographed more than 1,000 flags, and exhibited his work in more than 50 shows.
“I thought it would be a one-year project,” he says, “but I just kept finding more. I’m relentless. I ask everyone I meet if they know of [a flag] that I haven’t found yet.”
That last part has become especially important: After almost 10 years of searching, there aren’t many painted flags that Carley hasn’t already visited and photographed. (In fact, when I told him that I vaguely remembered seeing a large painted flag in Hamilton, N.J., he swiftly zeroed in on the one I meant and said that he’d already been there. A few days later, he e-mailed me a photograph of the exact flag I’d been trying to describe.)
While those who revel in cliched expressions claim that a picture is worth a thousand words, Carley says that uncovering the stories behind the flags he photographs is an equally important part of his quest: Why did a man in Greenwich, Conn., transform his Porsche into an American flag? Which attendant painted a parking hut in Manhattan with the Stars and Stripes, and how did he do it? Who owns that grain silo with the giant flag painted on its side?
Though he remains on the lookout for new versions of Old Glory, many of the early tributes Carley photographed have since been painted over or begun to fade. But actually, he says, those aging, peeling, painted flags make for interesting photos and further add to his enthusiasm for the project.
With the 10-year mark of 9/11 swiftly approaching, Carley was kind enough to share a few of his favorite photographs with the Arts Blog and to summarize his memories of each:
Stars & Stripes
“This flag was hanging in my hometown near a cemetery on Post Road in Darien, Conn. It was put up to honor the victims of 9/11. It was one of my first flag-themed photos. My town lost six people on that day.”
Flag Man, Queens, NY
“A co-worker spotted this gentleman one morning on her commute. She called me up and gave me the directions to her Queens neighborhood. I drove full speed from Connecticut hoping he would still be there.”
“This house is in Kent, Conn., and was painted soon after Sept. 11. The owner had a dream that he should paint his house with the Stars and Stripes. Eventually, he sold the house. It is now painted over and is a furniture store.”
“The owner of this pizza parlor was so shaken by 9/11 that he decided to show his support for the country by painting his pizza boxes like a flag. He started his project in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2001.”
Freedom of Expression
“The man who painted this boat is an electrician from the Bronx. He painted it soon after Sept. 11.”