The Mystery of the American Flag Sunset Viral Photo

We followed a pathway into the past to find the origins of a patriotic picture that had gone uncredited for nearly 10 years.

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The American flag sunset photo said it was the most patriotic sunset I've ever seen.
Image via Facebook

On May 30, 2021, Facebook user Karen Brunner shared a picture of a sunset with colors and clouds that somewhat resembled an American flag. It read: “The most patriotic sunset I’ve ever seen.”

The American flag sunset photo said it was the most patriotic sunset I've ever seen.

The post did not contain a photographer’s name or any other source.

Finding the Photographer

In order to find the origins of this picture, we first turned to Google. A reverse-image search wasn’t much help since the picture on Facebook contained added words. (The point of a reverse-image search is to send Google a photo on images.google.com, by clicking the camera icon, thus allowing Google to scan for pictures that look the same. The process works better on a desktop computer than a mobile device.)

While a reverse-image search didn’t work, a web search did. We looked up the words “American flag sunset” (without quotes) which turned up quick results.

We initially found two links to buy the picture as artwork on the websites Fine Art America and Pixels.

The artwork was credited to someone named Jas Stem, who later turned out to also be named Johnny Stem. Both pages said: “American Flag Sunset is a mixed media by Jas Stem which was uploaded on October 10th, 2019.”

At first, this appeared to perhaps solve the mystery. Unfortunately, we soon learned that he was not the creator of the American flag sunset photograph.

BuzzFeed

It became clear that Stem might not be the photographer after we found a Pinterest link that led to a BuzzFeed article. It was published on July 29, 2012. “Unbelievable Night Sky Photo Looks Like An American Flag,” the headline read.

While BuzzFeed’s embed for the picture was no longer working, we verified that the BuzzFeed story was about the same picture that Brunner posted on Facebook.

At the bottom of the article, it credited Twitter user @ChicagoPhotoSho for the American flag sunset picture. We decided to reach out.

Jeff Lewis

On the Twitter feed for @ChicagoPhotoSho, it identified the user as Jeff Lewis. Lewis manages chicagophotoshop.com and, as implied in his bio, is a photographer in Chicago, Illinois.

On July 30, 2012, the British tabloid Daily Mail published that the picture was captured “by Chicago photographer Jeff Lewis.” (In 2017, Daily Mail was deemed so “unreliable” by Wikipedia that the website prohibited its usage as a reference.)

Once again, the mystery appeared to be solved.

We reached out to Lewis to learn more about his purported involvement with the American flag sunset photograph.

“I did not take that photo,” he told us in a Twitter DM. “I saw that on Reddit and tweeted it. No clue who owns it.”

So, we turned to Reddit.

Reddit

After Lewis told us he saw the picture on Reddit, we found what appeared to be the original post on July 16, 2012. We were unable to find any information about the photograph’s origins in the post.

We also found a second Reddit post that promoted the picture. The Reddit thread was created on July 29, 2012, the same day that the photograph showed up on BuzzFeed.

The Imgur link where the photograph was hosted for the second Reddit post finally led us to the source of the picture. (In the old days, Reddit relied on third-party image hosting websites before ultimately creating its own media storage infrastructure.)

Elizabeth Cordes Rose

A comment on Imgur from ElizabethNDP read: “This is my original, copyrighted photograph. Posted on Instagram on 9/11/11. ElizabethNDP on FB: www.facebook.com/ElizabethNDP.”

The original “Patriotic Sunset” photograph was posted around the same time.

The picture could also be found on Rose’s Flickr page. However, it was originally posted to Facebook and Instagram on Sept. 10, 2011:

On Flickr, she mentioned that it was shot in Edmond, Oklahoma, and that the saturation of the picture had been increased for richer colors:

Stars & Stripes Sunset

Way-back Wednesday: Originally shot this image with my iPhone on September 10, 2011, the Eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. I was amazed at how much the sky looked like the American flag. It made me think that perhaps God was feeling patriotic that evening.

Edited with Snapseed, I increased Saturation to enhance the color of the “flag clouds”. I posted this in square form on my Instagram & Facebook accounts & learned the hard way about people stealing images & not giving credit. The image went viral on Facebook and on Reddit…all without any acknowledgment of the source.

…Anyway… Hope you all have a wonderful Independence Day! I received my D5200 back from Nikon Service & am looking forward to capturing some fireworks!

We reached out to her to ask about the picture. She told us it was captured on an iPhone. “I noticed the clouds made the sky seem to have red and white stripes. When I reviewed my shots, I was amazed to find how much the image resembled the American flag.”

While my image has not brought me fame or fortune, it does still make smile when I see it making the rounds again on the patriotic holidays. At first, I was frustrated at not being credited-or worse, when other’s claimed as their own without bothering to remove my watermark. I quickly found my efforts to find and gain credit to be futile. Over time, I was able to appreciate that people enjoyed the image irrespective of their knowledge of who actually captured it.

I’m not a professional photographer-merely a hobbyist-who happened to get a lucky capture. Despite requests, I have not licensed my image to anyone for use.

During the course of our search for the origins of the picture, we also found quite a few other interesting photographs that somewhat resembled the American flag.

In sum, for nearly 10 years, a picture of an American flag sunset was credited to the wrong people. The picture of the “Stars & Stripes Sunset” is properly credited to Elizabeth Cordes Rose.

Recent Updates
  1. On June 8, 2021, this story was updated with information from correspondence with Elizabeth Cordes Rose.
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