To mark Memorial Day, we’re featuring a photograph that is one of the most copied and imitated images of American photojournalism. Alfred Eisenstaedt shot “V-J Day in Times Square,” known also as “Times Square Kiss,” on August 14th, 1945 as ebullient crowds overflowed the streets to celebrate the end of WWII. The picture appeared in the now-defunct Life Magazine on August 27th and instantly became iconic. Today, it is Time-Life’s most requested and reproduced image.
1. The photograph’s icon status attests to the ability of a documentary image to transcend the time and place of its creation. The underlying themes of the egalitarianism of the war effort and the sheer joy and relief at the end of nightmarish conflict still resonate today. Nevertheless, there are ways that “V-J Day in Times Square” is a product of mid-century America. The young, white, heterosexual couple it showcases reflects the ideals of the era. Moreover, people today are more inclined to read it as coercive, the nurse an unwilling participant in the sailor’s forceful celebration. But when those who were in their 20s in 1945 are asked about the photograph, they simply see it as a wonderful and joyous image.
2. Part of the photograph’s allure and popularity is the anonymity of the kissers—because Eisenstaedt did not jot down their names, they can be seen as everyman and everywoman. Over time, at least 12 men have stepped forward to claim the identity of the sailor, but the search sponsored by Life was judged inconclusive. The identity of the nurse may be more of a closed case. In 1980, Edith Shain contacted Eisenstaedt, and after he flew her to California and photographed her, he proclaimed her to be the one. But the man a forensic artist with the Houston Police Dept. claims to be the sailor, Glenn McDuffie, rejects the notion that Ms. Shain is the woman he kissed. Maybe some mysteries were never meant to be solved!
3. “V-J Day in Times Square” has inspired all kinds of commemorations ranging from peculiar to poignant. Tattoos, sculptures (including one nearly 30 feet tall in Sarasota, Florida), advertising riffs and recreations in Legos all speak to the influence of the image. And the recreations aren’t limited to those static in nature—the kiss is reenacted annually in Times Square at a bash aimed at honoring the armed forces and the universal ideals of peace and love.
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