The Controversy Surrounding Alfred Eisenstaedt’s Iconic Photo of a V-J Day Kiss
A uniformed sailor clutches a woman at her waist, her back arched dramatically as their lips lock, their faces obscured. V-J Day in Times Square (1945), taken on August 14th in midtown Manhattan by acclaimed Life photojournalist
The photograph has since reached an iconic status, with Halloween enthusiasts, Mario characters, and a stormtrooper alike each becoming stand-ins for the couple, often perpetuating the photo’s status as a symbol of romance. But upon closer inspection, the mythology around Eisenstaedt’s photograph unravels.
Over the last 74 years, face-recognition specialists, forensic anthropologists, photography experts, and even physicists have tried to determine who the couple is. In an assembly of Cinderella-esque declarations, dozens of people have come forward claiming to be the man or the woman.
According to the photographer’s account, the sailor was elated, weaving through the streets and kissing women as he went. Eisenstaedt waited for the sailor in black to approach the woman, who was wearing all white. The result: An image of two unnamed strangers pressed against each other has managed to outshine Eisenstaedt’s photographs of well-known public figures like Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein.
Recently, the image has resurfaced, after George Mendonsa, who was perhaps most widely reported as the sailor, died last week. In a 2012 book, The Kissing Sailor: The Mystery Behind the Photo That Ended World War II, authors George Galdorisi and Lawrence Verria claimed they had confirmed Mendonsa’s identity through military-grade facial recognition and forensic analysis. And in an interview with CNN in 2015, the veteran himself asserted that the scar above his eyebrow, the size of his hands, and the lump on his left arm match the sailor’s. “I haven’t found a person yet that I haven’t convinced,” he mused.
But he did fail to convince some particularly important people: the editors at Life. So assured of his role in the image, Mendonsa sued Time Inc. in the late 1980s for “appropriation of likeness,” after Life ran an ad selling the photo signed by the photographer for $1,600. (Faced with an uphill legal battle against Time Inc., Mendonsa eventually dropped the case.)
Among other skeptics are physicists Steven Kawaler, Russel Doescher, and Donald Olson, who, in 2015, asserted that Mendonsa’s account, which placed him in Times Square following an early afternoon movie, did not align with their own research. Based on the shadows in the image, the physicists calculated that the photo was taken at precisely 5:51 p.m.
Other top contenders for the sailor include Glenn McDuffie, whom lauded forensic artist Lois Gibson supported based on his musculature and physiognomy, and Carl Muscarello, who claimed the mark on the sailor’s hand was his birthmark and reportedly called Mendonsa a “fraud.” As for the leading lady, Mendonsa identified Greta Friedman as the “nurse”—she was actually a dental assistant—while Edith Shain, an actual nurse, wrote to Eisenstaedt in 1980 to identify herself in the image. (Her 4’10” stature, however, has raised doubts.)
Through their research, Kawaler, Doescher, and Olson have also contested when the image was taken. Life’s headline, “Victory Celebrations,” leads viewers to believe that Eisenstaedt snapped the picture after President Truman’s announcement of victory at 7:03 p.m., but if the photograph was captured at 5:51 p.m., it was actually taken more than an hour before.
The moment wasn’t particularly unique, either: The subjects were just two of many people caught up in the Dionysian fervor that spread across the country on V-J day. One scholar called kissing “a sort of national currency for victory that day,” and Life featured a handful of these exchanges alongside Eisenstaedt’s well-known image, in locales from San Francisco to Kansas City. Even Eisenstaedt was caught smooching in the street.
Gloria Bullard, who is pictured in the background in Times Square that day, recalled an experience akin to a college frat party. “I’d lost [my] cufflinks, and my sleeves were torn from all the hugging and kissing,” she said in a 2010 interview with the New York Times. “I got kissed at least a dozen times.“
Mendonsa painted a similar picture. “We [were] all drinking and raising hell,” he told CNN in 2015. “I see the nurse.…I had a few drinks, and it was just plain instinct, I guess. I just grabbed her.” Retellings of the occurrence strike a different tone in 2019 than they may have in decades past, in light of global conversations on how consent is given and sexual assault is defined.
In Sarasota last Monday, just one day after Mendonsa’s death, Unconditional Surrender, a statue commemorating the photo, was defaced with the words “#MeToo” in red. And Friedman, who has been widely referenced as the woman photographed, has a story that shares similarities with #MeToo-era accusations of unwanted sexual contact—particularly the allegations faced by CBS’s Leslie Moonves of forcible kissing and the backlash against singer Katy Perry for surprising an American Idol contestant with an unwelcome kiss on the lips.
If true, Friedman’s recount, wherein she described being suddenly grabbed and held tightly by a “very strong” sailor, transforms the body language in the image: An impassioned fall becomes an aggressive act. It appears less an image of willful submission, as the captions from the Life article implied, and more one of capitulation.
The famous image takes on added complexity at time when the military’s role in gender-based violence and discrimination is under increased scrutiny: According to a Pentagon study released in April of last year, reported sexual assaults in the military increased by 10% in 2017 from the previous fiscal year.
It also raises topical questions about who has a right to serve. When a reenactment of Eisenstaedt’s image between a Navy sailor and his male spouse sparked controversy last December, some questioned how the outmoded 20th-century vision embodied by the image has persisted through decades. It’s especially pressing following the Supreme Court’s decision in January to uphold President Trump’s military transgender ban, which, if enacted, would bar thousands from service.
Eisenstaedt’s image continues to raise questions, and though it is visually striking, it was an unlikely candidate for the World War II historical record. Taken thousands of miles from ravaged battlefields, in Times Square, the pinnacle of commercial America, it offers a neat bookend on a sprawling historical event. But the reality of the image, just like history itself, is much more complicated.
Kelsey Ables is an Editorial Intern at Artsy.
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