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Why the V-J Day in Times Square Photo is So Iconic

  • Victor Jorgensen - Kissing the War Goodbye (detail), 1945, George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman
February 19, 2019
A philosophy graduate interested in critical theory, politics and art. Alias of Jelena Martinović.

A photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt which shows a U.S. Navy sailor grabbing and kissing a nurse on Victory over Japan Day in New York City’s Times Square has become a cultural artifact of sorts. First published in the Life magazine under the title V-J Day in Times Square, it has remained one of the most iconic and famous images of the 20th century.

Since the photo was taken in the spur of the moment amidst rapidly changing events during celebrations, Eisenstaedt did not have an opportunity to get the name and detail and the identity of the man and woman has remained a mystery for quite some time. Over the years, many people claimed to be the people in the photograph. Among them was George Mendonsa, who was finally confirmed as the sailor in recent years with the use of facial recognition technology.

Mr. Mendonsa died Sunday, February 17th, 2019, two days short of his 96th birthday. His daughter, Sharon Molleur, said he had a seizure and fell in an assisted living facility in Middletown, Rhode Island. George Mendonsa, who served in the Pacific during World War II, was on home leave when the picture was taken. He recalled him and his future wife, Rita, had joined the street celebrations after hearing people screaming that the war was over. It was there that he saw the nurse, later identified as Greta Zimmer Friedman. He said she reminded him of nurses on a hospital ship that he saw care for wounded sailors. “I had quite a few drinks that day and I considered her one of the troops—she was a nurse,” George Mendonsa explained.

Capturing fleeting snippets that crystallize the hope, anguish, wonder and joy of life, this iconic photograph, came to define our times. However, there’s more to the image than meets the eye.

Sailor Who Kissed Woman In Iconic Times Square V-J Day Photo Dies At 95 | TIME

Alfred Eisenstaedt and V-J Day in Times Square

V-J Day in Times Square, also known as V-J and The Kiss, was taken on August 14, 1945. It was announced that, after a half-decade of conflict, Japan had surrendered and that the War in the Pacific—and thus the Second World War itself—was finally over. People immediately took to the streets of cities and towns all over the country to celebrate, giving vent to joy and relief.

The Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt took his Leica and joined the euphoric crowds of people, soon finding himself in the joyous tumult of Times Square. As he searched for his subjects, he noticed a sailor “running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight.” In one of his books, the photographer recalled running ahead of him with his camera, but none of the pictures which were possible pleased him.

Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.

The image, which captures the joy and relief of that momentous day, was published in Life magazine on August 27th, 1945, warranting a full page of its own as part of a larger, multi-page feature titled, simply, Victory Celebrations. It became a cultural icon overnight, a symbol of triumph and celebration, forming the basis of our collective memory of that cathartic moment in world history. “People tell me that when I’m in heaven,” the photographer said, “they will remember this picture.” 

The U.S. Navy photojournalist Victor Jorgensen captured another view of the same scene, which was published in The New York Times the following day. However, as the angle of the photograph is less interesting than that of Eisenstaedt’s photo, it never reached equal fame.

Victor Jorgensen - Kissing the War Goodbye, 1945, mendonsa and friedman
Victor Jorgensen – Kissing the War Goodbye, 1945

The Controversies

Ever since the photograph was published, numerous people have come forward claiming to be its subjects, however, the distinct angle from which the photograph was taken obscures either subject’s face from view. In 2012, Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi published a book The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II, exploring the identity of the man and woman kissing using interviews of claimants, expert photo analysis, identifying people in the background and consultations with forensic anthropologists and facial recognition specialists. Their conclusion was that the woman in the photographs was Greta Zimmer Friedman who was wearing her dental hygienist uniform at the time. Friedman said that when she first saw the photograph in the 1960s, she instantly knew it was her.

While many interpreted the photographs as a loving kiss, Friedman’s account tells a different story. She explained she left her dental office in Times Square to see if the news of the war ending were true when she suddenly found herself in a sailor’s embrace. In an interview with Patricia Redmond of the Library Congress, she said:

And so suddenly I was grabbed by a sailor, and it wasn’t that much of a kiss, it was more of a jubilant act that he didn’t have to go back […] I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event. It was just an event of ‘thank god the war is over.

This has shed new light on this moment, which upon closer examination of the photo appears more forceful than affectionate. Many have since described the image as a documentation of a very public and normalized sexual assault, although Friedman reportedly did not view it that way.

William Waterway Marks - Eisenstaedt signing VJ day print on August 23, 1995
William Waterway Marks – Eisenstaedt signing VJ day print on August 23, 1995 at his Menemsha cabin on Martha’s Vineyard

The Legacy of the Photograph

Despite everything, the image remains in our collective memory and popular culture, with the scene being periodically reenacted in Times Square. In 2005, John Seward Johnson II displayed bronze life-like sculpture titled Unconditional Surrender on the occasion of the 60th-anniversary reenactment at Times Square. In 2015, the 25-foot-tall version of Johnson’s sculpture was installed in New York City for a temporary display. The photograph was also referenced in The Simpsons, in the film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, during the opening credits of the film Watchmen, as well as in the film Letters to Juliet.

On that day in 1945, there was a massive and genuine outpouring of emotion all over the country and the world. Of all the photographs taken during these heady times, none remains more emblematic of the jubilation than Eisenstaedt’s. “People tell me that when I’m in heaven,” he said, “they will remember this picture.” 

   Editors’ Tip: Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt: A Self-Portrait by Alfred Eisenstaedt

In pungent, often hilarious remarks, Eisenstaedt tells the story of some of the best-known portraits of our time, making this album a page-turner as well as a unique diary of the man and his century. With its gallery of personalities and engaging human-interest subjects, the book evokes the era when press photographers strived to create a universal language-insightful, urbane, sometimes comic, always succinct in content and form. The book is based on interviews with the photographer by Peter Adam, the British television personality, for the acclaimed BBC TV series, “Great Master Photographers.”

Featured image: Victor Jorgensen – Kissing the War Goodbye (detail), 1945. All images Creative Commons.