By Barbara Perry Bind
For nearly ten years now, former Greenwich resident Robert Carley has been photographing American flags in all their glory -- wherever he has come across them. There have been traditional flags, such as the huge one he photographed hanging outside the New York Stock exchange, and unusual flags, like the one made out of seashells that he came across in south Jersey. Then there was the flag-painted house in Nebraska, the flag pick-up truck in Maryland and the flag tattoo in Washington state -- that covered the face of a man.
Although it started as a year-long project for Carley, photographing flags has evolved into a passion. To date, his hard drive contains 32,701 photos divided into 1,522 folders with categories such as flag barns, flag murals, flag boats, flag food and flag mailboxes. He has 60 shoeboxes filled with negatives, and framed flag photos are overrunning his cellar.
"It would be great to find a museum to house them," says Carley. That hasn't happened yet, but some of his works are currently on display in two shows in Greenwich: The Greenwich Art Society Members Show "Brush With Fate," at the Flinn Gallery at Greenwich Library (through July 14) and the Art Society of Old Greenwich show at the Bendheim Gallery of the Greenwich Arts Council (through July 16).
Greenwich Citizen talked to Carley recently about his flag passion, how it began, how he finds his subjects, some of the places he has been and some of the people he has met.
What inspired you to start photographing flags?
I began taking photos of flags after September 11 (2001). People started to create their personal, homemade flags after 9/11 because the traditional store variety quickly sold out. These unusual flags inspired me, and I was determined to capture as many as I could with my photography. What I thought would be a year or so long project has turned into a 10 years-and-counting endeavor. Most of my flag shots were 9/11 inspired, but I have come across a lot that were painted just as a result of people being patriotic.
How do you go about finding interesting flags?
All my friends and co-workers know about my passion, and they keep a watch for me. When I am on photo trips, I like stopping at diners and asking waitresses and townspeople for flags.
Just recently, I was talking to a waitress in south Jersey and she told me about a flag made out of sea shells. I was able to find the flag and take photos of the man who created it.
I also call police and fire departments in areas that I expect to visit. One time a patrol car scouted a flag for me.
What are some of the most unlikely objects or settings you've captured that have been transformed into flags?
A man in Waterbury created a flag made entirely with pennies. Another man made a flag out of chains. The most unusual flag I have discovered was tattooed on a man's face. He also had God Bless America tattooed on his cheek.
I'd like to take a trip to Iowa and take pictures of a corn-on-the cob flag, which a friend told me about. The most unusual setting for a flag was probably a flag mural that was painted in front of Beamers, the topless strip club in Stamford. Another one was a flag painted lobster boat in Maine. In Ohio, an ice cream parlor was painted with the stars and stripes, with the stars in the shape of ice cream cones. I took pictures of a brand of deodorant with stars and stripes. Another unlikely canvas for the Stars and Stripes was the facade of a bar in Pennsylvania. I just noticed the other day in the grocery aisle a six-pack of beer with a Stars and Stripes design on the cans. I call the last two real toasts to America. I heard about a flag outhouse out west but decided I would pass on that one.
Where has your work taken you? Where are some of the more remote places you have traveled?
I started taking photos of flags around town, around Fairfield County, and then decided to take them all over the country. I have traveled to 43 states and will eventually make all 50.
One of my friends thought I was a bit crazy because I drove eight hours to the New York State and Canadian border to take photos in a remote area of a large flag-painted boulder.
My most remote discovery was a flag-painted house in a backwoods town in Nebraska. I really enjoy renting a car and just driving all day on back roads to places I have never been to. Getting lost has helped me find some amazing creations.
Do you find more flags in rural or urban settings?
I have found most of my flags in urban settings such as in New York City and the surrounding boroughs.
On my recent trip out West, I drove for hours not spotting a single flag. I drove by many farms with herds of cattle. Ironically, in 2009 in Brooklyn, I discovered a large, flag-painted cow sculpture.
Wherever there is a concentration of people, there is more likely a chance to find flags. It is also rare to find any really creative flags in wealthy neighborhoods like Greenwich.
Fitting the personality of Greenwich, a couple of years ago I did spot a flag-painted 911 model Porsche.
Talk about some of the most interesting people you have met in your travels who've created interesting flags.
One very interesting man I photographed was a parking lot attendant who worked near Ground Zero. After 9/11 hit, he had no customers and had time on his hands, so he decided to paint the parking lot hut he worked in as a flag. He described how lonely it was there and talked about all of the debris and dust in the neighborhood. He also recounted survival stories from customers who escaped the towers.
Another interesting man, from Staten Island, painted flags on roofs in all 50 states. I took pictures of him in Staten Island as he was painting a flag on the roof of a gas station. By coincidence, on my last trip out West, I came upon three of his flag roofs in different states. Another interesting person was a young school girl who painted -- along with her father -- their pickup truck like a flag. She was a volunteer and made regular trips to a military base delivering in their pickup cookies for returning soldiers.
And, finally -- are you patriotic?
Although I have a strong French heritage -- my grandfather was a decorated French ambassador -- I am very proud to be an American. I believe America is the greatest country in the world, "My country 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty."
I would not want to live anywhere else, and I can't wait to discover more of my country on my next road trip to California. I majored in political science and appreciate the genius of our founding fathers and the government they devised. I enjoyed attending the University of Pennsylvania located in Philadelphia, the birthplace of America. I am inspired by all the patriotic Americans I have met over the last 10 years and am pleased to honor them by showcasing their patriotic creations.