The Human Side of the American Flag
By Shawn Daniell
In 1974’s Spence v. Washington, the United States Supreme Court stated, “A person gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it.” I’m inclined to agree with that statement. For me, the American flag represents a symbol that is open to interpretation, in that it means something different for each person, whether that is as a symbol of freedom, honor, power, or America itself. Brad Austin Smith, a fine art and commercial photographer from Cincinnati, Ohio, explores the American flag in the newest exhibit, Flags, at the Behringer-Crawford Museum as part of Cincinnati FotoFocus. The Behringer-Crawford Museum is located in Covington, Kentucky’s Devou Park. In a series of thirty black and white photographs, Smith explores the human component behind the American flag and the personal connection between private citizens and their flags.
I like the fact that Smith decided to complete this whole series in the black and white format with each image sized as 8” x 8” squares; they resemble snapshots in a family photo album. There’s classiness and a sense of timelessness attached to black and white images that work very well with this exhibit. The simple elegance of black and white photos creates a peaceful exhibit space and is in direct contrast to the outside world of loud, garish colors and the constant blaring sounds of technology. Smith has spent years capturing photographic images full of symbolism and emotion that include small plastic flags, large flags, flags represented as chalk drawings, adults and children, and more.
What I immediately felt drawn to were the portraits of children juxtaposed with the American flag; they seem to exude a strong powerful emotion. One piece in particular that resonated with me is Rain, in which a young girl has a flag draped around her like a cape as she stares straight at the camera. The expression on her face is not one of happiness, but instead invokes resignation and apathy. Another image titled Kevin has a young boy with the flag dragged across the front of him as he yells at the camera. I want more of these types of images and feel that the entire exhibit could have focused entirely on the young and their relationships with the American flag.
Another image that struck a cord with me is Flags $2.00 in which a lone flag sits abandoned in a small wastepaper basket in a cluttered office. A piece of paper folder over the lip of the trash-can display Flags $2.00 written in marker. Whether I look at it symbolically or as an image only, I can’t help feeling a sense of loneliness and sadness when I view the sad, little flag all on its own. In Cynthia, an elderly female sits in a chair while holding a gun with both hands as a flag hangs in the background. I really love the juxtaposition of a symbol of violence with a symbol of freedom. But you can also read this image differently in terms of freedoms, because the flag is a symbol of freedom and the right to bear arms is one of those freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. I love the duality of meaning within this particular image.
With Flags, Smith has chosen some really lovely and powerful images to display, evoking the fullness of words and ideas such as Americana, family, patriotism, strength, childhood innocence, resignation, cynicism, pride and much more. And although there doesn’t appear to be a stringent narrative structure with how the images are displayed, the photos seem to be arranged as if they are in a scrap book or a family photo album, the way they are arranged seem to work well with the nature of the exhibit, almost as if we are attending one giant family reunion of fellow Americans.
Flags is on display at the Behringer-Crawford Museum through January 20th, 2013. Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sundays 1-5 p.m. Entrance to the exhibit is included with museum admission, with tickets are priced at $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (60 and over) and $4 for children and students (3-17). For more information about the Behringer-Crawford Museum and the exhibit, you can visit their website at bcmuseum.org.