The American Flag, Revisited

For years, while pointing my camera at cityscapes and the terrain of local communities, I have spotted the presence of American flags. These emblems remind me of the time-tested national sensibility that connects this country, despite the different lifestyles and outlooks of its people. These banners and colors do not always seize space in huge, overbearing fashion like mega-sized car dealerships shouting their wares: often they reside in low-key mode, like thoughtful, homegrown displays of resilient pride. They remind passersby that America is not one faceless mall and parking lot; rather, it’s a series of locales, each with its own story and heritage, ideology and spirit.

San Antonio, Texas, 2012

Shot in a Latino neighborhood near an air force base, this diptych painted on two walls of a local bar symbolizes the dual personality of the people. One side features the fierce and fearless eagle emblazoned with the colors of national unity and power, protecting the city. Meanwhile, the other is indebted to localism, the western wear of the Southwest, the grit and glory of metal spurs in a multicultural landscape. The images bear a sense of heritage, flavor, and fervor connected to place, people, pleasure, and service.


Sharpstown, Texas, 2009

This was shot during mid-day on the edge of the first master-planned community in Texas, which was born during the robust homes-for-everyman idealism and profit motives of the mid-‘50s. In fact, six homes in the area were later offered to astronauts, but graciously turned down. In contrast to such curated and controlled communities, this tire shop’s homegrown entrepreneurs morphed the flag’s timeless color palate into pop Americana advertising. Such vernacular uses remain fresh, somewhat unkempt, and unsanctioned — like the best of outsider art.


Independence Heights, Texas, 2009

This was captured on a late morning on the main road crisscrossing the first African American municipality in Texas. Painted on the exterior wall of a health clinic, the mural combines African American hero worship of President Obama and Martin Luther King with a powerful subtext: the physical well-being of the democratic state, in which all people participate fully and meaningfully, which correlates to citizenry taking advantage of health programs. Hence, the hearts bordering the portraits indicate not just a love for icons. They also symbolize the power of vital, well-maintained attitudes, both spiritual and political, that shape people’s resilience and perseverance.


Rockford, Illinois, 2011

This struck me at dusk, in front of a muffler shop during a whirlwind trip through my hometown. The anthropomorphized metallic “pet” meets visitors on the sidewalk. Fabricated by using industrial materials — an intrinsic part of the old rust belt economy — it evokes both whimsy and woe regarding a bygone era, while embodying both folk practices and machine shop products. It safeguards the memory of domestic life in the heartland.


Ellsworth, Maine 2011

This was shot downtown at night, as thinning crowds of tourists headed to nearby Arcadia National Park. I could feel the fervor of citizenry here, where local politics and voting rights merge with a recent swell in national taste for “stand up and be counted” attitudes. The flags, discourse of flyers, and staunch sense of responsibility evoked in the window mirror the state’s legacy of town hall style direct democracy in action. These are images meant to compel voters.


Greenwood Grange Hall, Maine, 2011

Grange Halls are some of the last vestiges of rural America rich with traditional practices, abundant local lore, and working class community bonds. Many have closed and merged. I shot this near dusk on a rustic stretch of Maine, where the flag seemed to symbolize something forlorn and mysterious – perhaps a dwindling kind of hope in farm policies made by faraway bureaucrats. In the meantime, the building symbolizes residual pride and Yankee self-reliance.


Oregon shore, 1998

Shot with a disposable camera on the wind-whipped lip of Oregon, this picture captures the tumultuous beach weather that inhabits much of the region. The angles of the flag and fence-line strike me as counterpoised intrusions into the tree line. This is the edge of the Monroe Doctrine, a potential tsunami zone, and a poem to “go West” idealism, ironically recalling William Everson, the master print maker and poet interned down the coast at Waldport as a Conscientious Objector in World War II.


Eugene, Oregon, 2008

This outcrop, the site of famed runner Steve Prefontaine’s car accident in the hills above Eugene, forms a makeshift pilgrimage site that blurs the sacred and profane. It has attracted visitors from all over the world and the keen interest of noted folklorist Daniel Wojcik. People routinely leave items to honor the folk hero of Nike products, some pray and cry, while others simply wish to gain strength and hope from his story by touching the rock or observing the items. The items are not mere detritus: they are imbued with neo-religious significance at the ad hoc “Church of Pre”.


Lubec, Maine, 2011

Many people may argue apple pie is the American culinary symbol par excellence, but my mother’s cake, made using tidy instructions from Betty Crocker, registers with me as a sign of quick and easy American consumer goods, love symbolized by copious sweet treats, and middle-class creature comfort. She was a child of inner-city Depression era Ohio; I was a child of the ranch home suburbs, where freedom meant bustling grocery stores, all-night VHS movies, and enticing scents wafting from warm ovens.


New Orleans, Louisiana 2011

This was spotted on a French Quarter side street. This flag was posted on the window of a restaurant’s back kitchen, slightly obscured by a screen mesh. Heat fogged the glass, delicious smells of Cajun cooking drifted across the asphalt, and the sun bore down like a genuine, eager friend. New Orleans still suffers in places, but people flock to the Quarter, eager to stuff their mouths and drink sloppy Hurricanes so that they might forget hurricanes. The flag imparts that sense of fortitude, business as usual, and make-do, but also the blur of uneven progress, as well.