Capturing the American spirit
When most patriotic people see an American flag, they stop and salute.
Bob Carley takes it a little further.
After witnessing the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, from his Stamford office, the 52-year-old Darien native and artist made it his hobby to capture the American spirit by taking photographs of Old Glory in all her glory. Almost 10 years later, it's become his passion and his mission.
"It's been a joy to meet these patriotic Americans and to document their patriotic flag tributes with my photography," he said.
Carley has found time to travel to 22 different states, taking pictures of the American flag in many different forms -- a chain-link fence painted like the flag, a pick-up truck decked out with stars and stripes, a surfboard painted in Atlantic City, a farm silo in Dover, Del., painted like the flag to welcome home planes flying fallen soldiers to Dover Air Force Base from Afghanistan.
Last summer, he traveled for 17 days and 7,000 miles looking for flags to photograph. Next summer, he plans to hit the west coast. He's taken pictures of veteran cemeteries full of little flags, and he's found entire buildings in New York City draped in a huge cloth flag. Almost 20 people from New York to Nebraska have invited him to take pictures of their houses -- the entire thing painted like -- you guessed it.
"The flag is a living symbol," he said. "I consider myself a documentary photographer and I am committed to getting as many flags as possible."
Apparently, some important folks have taken notice of his work. For next year's 10-year anniversary of the attacks, the state capitol in Hartford will display 80 of Carley's flag photos in a tribute, and the public library in the small town of Kent will display his photos of what he calls "flag houses." He took the first photo of a house painted like a flag in Kent, and by next year he hopes to have taken a picture of a flag house in all 50 states. He's also working on a book -- he submitted a manuscript to his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, for a picture book tribute called "Red, White, and Blue America."
"You can't get more heartfelt than when people make something," he said.
Carley, a 1977 Darien High School graduate, recalls that he was always interested in art. The son of a New Orleans advertising rep and the stepson of Manhattan artist/painter Reva Urban, he was exposed to the creative arts at a young age. In high school, he said he was always known for drawing and got his start sports caricatures. Later, he earned a liberal arts degree at Boston University, and another degree in fine arts and political science at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. In college, he developed a knack for drawing political caricatures that he continues today -- he's known for showing up at the offices of celebrities such as former New York City mayor Ed Koch and surprising them with a caricature.
He landed an internship with the late Rhode Island senator Claiborne Pell, and later worked for Manhattanville College managing publications, and at U.S. Tobacco in Stamford as graphic artist and sales rep.
It was from his office high up in downtown Stamford that he witnessed the attacks on New York, and he remembers the feeling of helplessness that he felt along with his co-workers.
"I remember turning to someone and saying that we are witnessing thousands of people dying right now," he said. "I was inspired by the belief that our country would overcome. People turned to the flag as a symbol."
He said he can remember the show of patriotism around town, and recalls one local painter that had hung an American flag on the side of his van. He followed him and the man allowed him to take a picture of what ended up being the last American flag sold at Ring's End Lumber in Darien before they ran out, and that began his photo-taking mission.
"I told myself I have to get this guy for Darien history," he said. "I started seeing around town these beautiful flags created by average people, but they were amazing tributes."