The saying goes, “a picture is worth a thousand words. ” The possibilities are endless, and in this case, timeless. This picture can portray the heart of a nation’s culture, the exuberance of a historic moment, or even the embodiment of a people. The year: 1945, sailors and nurses litter the streets of New York City. There is a sense of anticipation. Japan’s pending surrender (ending the world’s second ravaging period at war) and bringing America’s boys home is imminent.
On August 14, 1945, Alfred Eisenstaedt unknowingly captures one of the most influential photographs in American history as New York City is captivated by news of America’s victory over Japan. Eisenstaedt’s snapshot of the kissing couple in “V-J Day in Times Square” (also known as “The Kiss”), depicts the face of the United States in the mid-1940’s: the national mood of elation, the spirit of American culture, and the beacon of hope for better days to come.
It can be said that Albert Eisenstaedt is good at being ‘in the right place, at the right time’. Having had perfect timing to catch a spontaneous lip lock in the middle of what is still the biggest city in the United States of America, “The Kiss” is categorized as one of the ten greatest images in the history of photojournalism. Pegged as the “father of photojournalism,” German born American photographer/photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt is renowned for capturing naturally lit candids on his 35mm Leica Camera.
In 1944, Life magazine would quote Eisenstaedt to be the “dean of today’s miniature – camera experts. ” As one of the first of four staff photographers for Life magazine, “eighty-six of his photographs made the cover” (Gallery M). Following the news of Japan’s surrender, a set titled “The Men of War Kiss from Coast to Coast” features Eisenstaedt’s photograph along with thirteen other images for the article, “Victory Celebrations” (Chan). None of these photos have the iconic effect quite like Eisenstaedt’s black and white candid.
The exact caption from the August 27, 1945, issue of Life read: “In the middle of New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers. ” (Chan). The caption is simple, for the picture says so much more. Just one look at the “The Kiss” sparks differing emotions and scrutiny. The scrutiny includes analysis of its artistic elements and symbolism. The black and white photography allows for sharp contrasts of light and shadow against the black street and white confetti.
Additional scrutiny involves the main subjects of “The Kiss”. The white clad nurse and her unexpected sailor of a partner have been beacons of courage and service for that time. The couple is posed against the heart of New York City in a passionate moment romanticized by many. “An exuberant American sailor kissing a nurse in a dancelike dip [that] summed up the euphoria many Americans felt as the war came to a close” (Cosgrove). Even more so, the mystery couple happens to form the point of a V (almost uncanny in its resemblance to the wartime symbol, “V for Victory”).
Artistically, the scene is in the middle of public interaction, passionate but not a display of inappropriate intimacy, and truly a realistic portrait of emotional complexity. It is a rare but welcomed example of personal intimacy captured in the norm of 1940’s public life. Hariman and Lucaites would go as far as to say it is a “backdrop against which the nation would return from its struggle for life and liberty to the pursuit of happiness. ” This struggle underscores a mood that sweeps the nation.
Unlike the elation Eisenstaedt captures in “The Kiss,” other photographs capture other consequences of the end of the war. For example, of the fourteen photographs mentioned earlier in “Victory Celebrations,” six display affectionate kissing. The remaining photographs record mob scenes that teeter between good-natured letting off steam and uncontrolled violence. “With the exception of the “Times Square Kiss,” the ‘kissing’ pictures depict lascivious or transgressed acts, and in doing so they place the tenuous balance between liberty and order at risk” (Hariman and Lucaites).
As for the American culture at the time, the tensions between liberty and order and between repression and release become more evident. This can be seen when “The Kiss” is compared to Eisenstaedt’s earlier image of a man kissing a woman as he is about to depart for the war. Entitled “Soldier’s Farewell,” this photo was on the Life cover for April 19, 1943. “Both are upright, self-contained, already armored against the likelihood of irreparable loss” (Hariman and Lucaites).
This is a reflection of the emotional compartmentalization families went through and the foundation for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) many soldiers would acquire. World War I would draft America’s finest and rally the nation in preparation for war. Women and children at home limit their food supplies for rations and collect scrap metal for weaponry – as it is one of the only ways to help their beloved overseas. Being in the line of duty turns out to be much more gruesome and dangerous for our barely legal boys leading the front lines.
America wins the first war, many die and World War II lines our boys up once again. Except this time it is seen as an obligation. Although conscription is only ever used three times in American history, the societal standard for men to go to war is honorary – “…to fight for one’s country even if we lost our own lives” (Stone). In other words, the mood is sober – widowers lose their sons to another war, the standard principle of men shifts to women in the workplace, and discrimination remains constant (especially for any foreigners left in the States while the ‘real American men’ go to fight).
At the end of all this, “World War II would end having taken nearly 50 million lives” (Aboukhadijeh). Nonetheless, brave men stood and fought for their country without a second thought. “It became one of the most famous WWII photographs in history (and the most celebrated photograph ever published in the world’s dominant photo-journal), a cherished reminder of what it felt like for the war to finally be over” (“A Timeless Kiss: Couple in V-J Day Photo Reunite In Times Square”).
The end of World War II is known as an incredibly monumental moment for the American people. After two long periods of constant battle globally and the cost of millions of lives lost, it would take us quite some time to properly absorb and react to the consequences of this end. Truly enough, Eisenstaedt’s photograph is a portion of the immediate reaction to the news – “the fighting is over and everyone is going home” (Ng 15). With that in mind, the photograph also serves as the focus of analysis by critics across the nation following that time period.
The 50’s model of conduct in public is strictly heterosexual, with enforced separation of the sexes until the post-World War II era sweeps that away. Chan includes the perspective of art critic, Michael Kimmelman, who would submit the following into The Times (1997): “The most famous photograph of Times Square is surely Alfred Eisenstaedt’s chestnut of the kissing couple, which summed up the national mood in 1945 because it combined all the right elements: the returning soldier, the woman who welcomed him back and Times Square, the crossroads that symbolized home. ”