Saturday, June 29, 2013

Iconic Photos: VJ Day in Times Square

Those who do not know the background to, and circumstances of, the above photograph may nonetheless be aware of it from watching Night at the Museum 2. That film continues the theme of NATM 1, of the exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York coming to life at night because of the magical effects of the Golden Tablet of Akhmenrah. During a chase when our hero, Larry Daley, and Amelia Earhart are chased by the bad guys, they attempt to get away by going into the above photograph. The scene then shifts to 1945 Times Square in black and white, including the sailor kissing the nurse. When the bad guys follow into the photograph, Larry and Amelia manage to exit the photograph and trap the bad guys by turning the photograph to the wall.

The above photograph, a famous iconic image, is titled V-J Day in Times Square and was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt on 14 August 1945.

Some facts and trivia about the photograph:


V-J Day stands for Victory over Japan Day. It is also known as V-P Day, being Victory in the Pacific Day and commemorates the surrender of Japan on 14 August 1945. V-E Day, or Victory in Europe Day, commemorates 8 May 1945, the date when the Allies accepted the surrender of the armed forces of Nazi Germany.


The photograph shows a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day, when celebrations had taken to the streets on the announcement of Japan’s surrender. It was published a week later in Life magazine.


The photograph is also known as V-J Day in Times Square, V-Day, and The Kiss.


The scene photographed by Eisenstaedt was spontaneous and he was unable to obtain the names of the sailor and the nurse. Shortly after the photograph was taken the area became a sea of people.


In two books, Eisenstaedt has given slightly different accounts of the taking of the famous photograph:

From Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt:

In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn't make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. 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 stupid 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. 
Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.

From The Eye of Eisenstaedt:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I'd hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn't been a nurse, if she'd been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn't have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor's dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.


US Navy photographer Victor Jorgensen photographed the same kiss but from a different angle:

That photograph is not as effective, showing less of the surrounding scene and cutting off the legs and feet of the sailor and the nurse. It is darker and shows less details of the persons kissing,


Because Eisenstaedt did not obtain the identities of the parties, various persons have come forward claiming to be them. 

It is generally accepted that the nurse was Edith Shain, who died at age 91 in 2010 of liver cancer. She maintained that she and her friend left work to go to Times Square to celebrate the announcement of Japan’s surrender. As soon as she arrived and exited the subway, she said, she was grabbed and kissed by the sailor. She allowed the kiss, saying to herself that he had fought for her in the war.

There are a number of claimants to the identity of the sailor, front runner being George Mendonsa, whose scars and tattoos were matched by experts and forensic analysts to those seen on the sailor in the photographs. Mendonsa was on leave from USS The Sullivans at the time and was watching a movie with his future wife, Rita, when the doors to the theatre opened and people began shouting that the war was over. According to Mendonsa, the bars were too crowded to get into so he and Rita walked down the street. Displaying considerable sensitivity to the feelings of his partner, George saw a nurse walk by, took her in his arms and kissed her. "I had quite a few drinks that day and I considered her one of the troops—she was a nurse." Mendonsa claims that Rita is visible in the background of one of the four photographs he took of the kiss. In 1987, George did a very modern, American thing: he sued Time/Life for violating his privacy by publishing the photograph without his permission. When it reached the stage of Mendonsa having to prove that he was the sailor in the photograph, he dropped the suit.

Edith Shain

George Mendonsa

George then

Rita Mendonsa future wife of George Mendonsa behind the kissing couple

One final note: 

On 14 August 2005, John Seward Johnson displayed a life size sculpture of the kiss, Unconditional Surrender, in Times Square to mark the 50th anniversary of VJ Day. The ceremony that featured his sculpture included attendances by Edith Shain and George Mendonsa. She declined to allow him to kiss her as in the photograph.

Johnson later made a number of 7.5m versions in aluminium, styrofoam and plastic which were displayed in various locations.

The works were offered for sale at prices ranging from $542,500 for styrofoam, $980,000 for aluminum, and $1,140,000 for bronze.

Having been displayed at the bayfront in Florida in 2005, it returned in 2009, prompting the Chairwoman of the Public Art Committee to comment that "it doesn't even qualify as kitsch...It is like a giant cartoon image drafted by a computer emulating a famous photograph. It's not the creation of an artist. It's an artist copying a famous image."

Robert L. Pincus, art critic of The San Diego Union Tribune also commented on the version installed at San Diego as being kitsch and that "The figures look like something from a cheap souvenir factory, blown up beyond any reason."

Unconditional Surrender

Mass re-enactment

It is interesting to note, in passing, that the sculpture raises the same upskirts issue as for the Marilyn Monroe statue, the subject of a previous post on this blog :

Marilyn Monroe statue, recreating the famous billowing skirt images


Amelia Earhart and Larry Daley leave the photograph in Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian

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