The V-J Day Kiss. (click here for photo) I don’t remember a time before this photo was transferred into my imagination of the world. Like Marilyn with her dress blowing upward or James Dean in his leather jacket. These images have always been in my head.
The photograph was published in Life magazine in 1945 with this caption: “In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.”
It’s an icon. An American celebration of soldiers coming home from war; welcomed by the girlfriends and wives who had shouldered the burden of their absence for the cause of freedom and liberty.
Or, not exactly.
The photograph was published nearly thirty years before I was born. Its status as an icon and the clear romance of all it captures, all it signifies, allows it to enter my imaginal world by way of postcards and coffee mugs, magnets and statuettes lining gift shop shelves and filling window displays. I recall picking-up and gently admiring a salt and pepper set formed of this image.
All along I assumed something, or several things actually about that photograph. The first being that the two knew each other, that they were romantically involved and had not seen each other in quite awhile. I assumed the sailor was just stepping off of a ship, right then, right there, and kissing his beloved nurse who had patiently been missing him.
I had also assumed that the shot was entirely candid. And, perhaps it was, in a way, or for all intents and purposes it could be considered candid.
Or, not exactly.
I had assumed a great deal about this photo.
On this wiki-page we can see the exact moment only shot from a slightly different angle, snapped by a navy photographer named Victor Jorgenson. According to the wiki-page: “Kissing was a favorite pose encouraged by media photographers of service personnel during the war . . .”
George Mendosa is the famed sailor in the photo; he never says he was asked by a photographer to ‘kiss the ladies’, but why would he? His impromptu celebration is iconic, after all. In this dailymail article Mendosa states: “. . . I saw the nurse, and I grabbed her, and I kissed her.” Later in the same article the writer tells us that Mendosa was drunk and doesn’t remember the kiss.
My question is: Could Victor Jorgensen, the navy photographer, have requested the sailor grab women and kiss them? George Mendosa, after all, was on a first date with Rita Petry (his wife of sixty-eight years now) who is also captured in the famous photograph as an onlooker.
Certainly a spontaneous and drunken joy over the knowledge you will not be returned to war could cause a man to not only disregard his date but also the very personal space of a woman whom he does not know. On the other hand, a photographer request for a certain behavior, especially an act that crosses several lines at once, almost makes more sense.
Even on our current landscape, where our acts can be broadcast live to the entire world instantaneously, people do inappropriate things at the request of photographers, especially when drunk.
George Mendosa claims only the grabbing and kissing of Greta Zimmer Friedman, however Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photographer of the iconic image, claims he saw a sailor running through Times Square kissing all the women, “young and old”, and positioned himself in a way that would potentially gain a good shot of these antics.
Eisenstaedt, actually, provides two different stories on how he captured this shot.(read here/wiki) Both versions are relatively the same, but not identical. Is it possible that Eisenstaedt requested or suggested the grabbing and kissing? His dueling versions of the event could signify complete falsification on his part, though not necessarily.
Rita Petry, George Mendosa’s wife, makes no mention of an indiscriminate grabbing of women by George on their first date. Which, I think she would remember. But maybe she would rather not mention it. Maybe both of them would rather not mention it, or anything else that might detract from this American Icon of which they are a central point.
Of course, Rita’s positioning in the photo would indicate, to me at least, that unless she was keeping up with George by jogging through the wake of violated women he left behind him, she would not be in the photo. But maybe George wasn’t going that fast, maybe he was taking his time and jovially chatting with the women? Except, Greta. To whom he said nothing before or afterward.
Perhaps Eisenstaedt was trying to create a narrative that seemed ‘festive’ in order to cover the fact that he specifically requested that George specifically grab/kiss Greta because of the contrast their outfits would make, not only by way of color but also profession. Maybe Eisenstaedt simply backed-up behind Greta and waited for the moment when George would grab her. Even George’s words, “I saw the nurse . . . “, would fit into this scenario if we add the words “After the guy with the camera said kiss the nurse, I saw the nurse . . .” And Eisenstaedt’s second version of events has him focussed on the nurse the whole time. Perhaps he is truthful in that regard.
Eisenstaedt had taken photos (4 total) of the ‘couple’ but had not interacted with either of them any further. And apparently neither did Victor Jorgenson, the navy photographer. The identity of the ‘kissers’ had never been known. In 1980 three women and eleven men came forward to claim they were the participants in the photo. Why? Were these people just looking for a claim to fame? Were they lying with the hopes of being attached to something larger than themselves? Or were many sailors grabbing and kissing women that day? Is it possible that photographers looking to capture military men in the kissing pose had, in fact, requested/suggested the behavior from many men on that day? Is it possible that Times Square erupted into a frenzy of grabbing and kissing? Or at least hosted a spree here and there?
George Mendosa had not just stepped off a ship. He was not passionately greeting the love of his young life. He was a drunk sailor just come from Radio City Music Hall on a first date with a different woman.
Greta Zimmer Friedman was not a nurse waiting in the streets to celebrate a grand homecoming. She was a dental assistant on lunch break who states: “I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me.” And it was not, I don’t believe, a truly candid photograph. It was, rather, Standard Operating Procedure in the world of photojournalism at the time. It was the kissing pose.
Every assumption I had made about that photograph was entirely without merit. I was born nearly thirty years after its original publication. My only contact with the image came through cultural nostalgia in the form of knick-knacks. When it comes to iconoclasm, nostalgia, and the historical irreverence which fuels the vehicles of commercial liquidity, the artifacts of my culture become oppositional to who I am and how I may proceed in understanding myself.
The photo is anything but romantic. It was Greta’s husband who, looking at the photo, pointed out: “You know, when you get very tense, your arm stiffens up and your thumb sticks out just like that.” Tense. No doubt. To look at the photo as a romantic reunion, it is possible to see the sailors grip as signifying a feeling something along the lines of: I’ll never have to leave you again. But once we know the woman is a stranger grabbed-up on the street, the grip, her body posture, become, well, uncomfortable to look at, to put it mildly. Yet, as an icon it endures. How much did this 25 foot statue cost San Diego? What price do we pay as a culture to continue to falsify our real-time events in favor of narratives that simply never existed?
Stage directed photography has a history as long as photography itself. Photojournalists covering crime and accident scenes have been known, while in the field, to pack Teddy Bears to give to frightened or wounded children in order to add to the emotional impact of the photos they take. Certainly it is not immoral to give a frightened child a Teddy Bear, but doing so with the ulterior motive of manipulating people emotionally, probably is.
Battle photographs from the Spanish-American war in Cuba as well as American Civil war photos are understood as posed, re-enacted, and otherwise stage-directed; including the moving and posing of dead bodies. These falsifications are known and understood as part of professional photography’s history. But understood by whom? And understood in what way?
What does it mean to be the viewer of the photograph? What identity do we assume when we ingest photographic images?
We have come to an age in technology where all images must be questioned. But, our history is told to us in images that must be questioned.
What have we learned, really? Through all these fantastic hoaxes and nonsense historical reveries? What do we know about the image in relation to the self?
I question the images I see for the most part. If I am asked to believe something based on an image, I question the veracity of that image. But I ask myself now, what about images that merely accompany a story? If the image itself is not the ‘proof’, do I bother to question it? If I am shown a location as merely an image to accompany a story, do I question whether or not the location is in fact the location where the story took place? No. I don’t. Or I didn’t.
If there is a protest or a war going on somewhere and it is a fact that the protest or war is occurring, does it make a difference if the photos/images I am shown are posed? What if they are posed and offered to me as ‘in the heat of battle’? Does it matter then?
What does it mean to be the viewer of an image? What identity do I assume as a viewer? Who am I as a spectator in the ceaseless whirlwinds of mighty spectacle-making machines?
Am I an American in a romance with the glory of freedom and a great love affair that waits and waits for all of us to come home and come home safe? Or am I a viewer of an internationalized spectacle of drunken sailors grabbing and kissing women without permission, at the behest of equally, perhaps, drunken photographers seeking not what is truthful, but what an America in romance with itself needs to believe is truthful?
What does it mean to be the viewer?
* * *
Greta Zimmer Friedman discovered, after the war, that her parents had died in the camps. She is from Austria and has never returned.
On the day she was grabbed in the street by a strange, drunken sailor, she was more than a celebratory prop and a photo opportunity. She was a young woman, a real person, hoping against hope that she would one day be reunited with her parents. But, this was not to be. Read her own words about the event of the ‘iconic’ photo here. xxo