DARIEN — Six months before the Sept. 11 attacks, Robert Carley became inspired to start taking photos after inheriting a Nikon from his father. He was working in Stamford when he was moved by seeing smoke from the terrorist attacks from the window of his office.

“I was never into photography, and then I was drawn in,” the lifelong Darien resident said. “I was inspired come Sept. 11 to capture what was going on in the country.”

Prior to that, Carley had made a career from his caricature work, drawing and meeting over 300 celebrities, as well as drawing political cartoons. He also dabbles in painting, winning his first award from the Darien Arts Center in 1972 (he also recently took second place for an abstract painting in the Darien Art Show). But seeing the aftermath of the attack on the Twin Towers inspired him to document the country’s reaction.

“It really hits you hard,” he said. “It’s like watching an attack in history. It doesn’t hit you then that it’s a historic moment. I felt I didn’t want to miss the boat on this. As a photographer, this is a moment. It’s deeper than the flag. It’s people’s personalities. This was a unique time in America.”

Since then, Carley, 58, has traveled to 47 states photographing creative displays of patriotism. From flag houses to cars, he’s photographed different ways people honor the American flag. His work was inspired by Felix Nadar, a French caricaturist and photographer who captured the lives of Parisians in his photos. Over the years, he’s photographed over 7,000 striking displays of patriotism around the country.

“Flag houses are the most inspiring,” he said. “It’s the most dramatic display. Some people think it’s crazy, but it shows the heart of loving the country.”

Carley tries to go on a “flag trip” every year. His trips are half hearing about photographable subjects beforehand and half deciding as he goes. He might hear about a flag house from a friend in one state or drive somewhere and ask people in the area for tips once he hits the road.

“Everything helps me,” he said. “One thing leads to another. I get tips from everyone: my friends, my dentist. I thought it’d be a couple years, but I keep finding new things.”

Carley’s photography has been in the Star Spangled Banner Flag House Museum and the September 11 Museum, as well as highlighted in a book by Scot Guenter, a professor at the University of San Diego. But Carley also creates his own creative flags, starting with a cupcake flag made in 2007, and hopes his own artistic flags will someday be recognized.

“I think it’s art,” he said. “I can exhibit these. I know they’re creative, artistic.”

Carley’s work has featured flag designed from paper clips, water bottles and most recently, a display made out of spray painted cedar boxes and different sized cups which he put on his front porch.

“It’s one of a kind,” he said. “No one is going to go through that trouble making boxes. I try to be unusual and interesting.”

ekayata@hearstmediact.com; @erin_kayata