If you are a student of photography, of news photography, or history, you already know today’s photo very well.
It was taken by Albert Eisenstaedt on VJ Day, August 14, 1945, in Times Square in New York City. From the early afternoon, rumors began floating that the Japanese had surrendered, ending World War two after nearly 4 years of U.S. involvement. Eisenstaedt had been wandering with his camera, looking for things to shoot. He spotted a sailor, possibly inebriated, who was joyously kissing every nurse in sight. Eisenstaedt spotted a woman in a nurse’s uniform, and to his delight, the sailor grabbed the woman and planted a kiss. The kiss lasted long enough that he clicked off four shots.
Another photographer, U.S. Navy journalist, Lt. Victor Jorgensen, clicked off a shot from a slightly different angle at the same moment as Albert’s second shot. It isn’t as widely known, but served the important purpose of identifying one of the witnesses in the photo, Gloria Bullard, who is standing under the “W” in the Walgreen’s sign to the left of the photo. She stated, importantly, that she remembered the shot as being taken just around 6:00 P.M. Also important is that fact the Jorgensen’s train didn’t arrive at Manhattan’s Penn Station until 3:00 P.M. that day.
Why is that important? Only in terms of identifying the people in the photo. Shamefully, but perhaps unsurprisingly, because the faces of the kissers are almost completely obscured, many men and women have emerged as the couple in the photo. In addition, since, by Eisenstaedt’s own account, the kissing sailor had smooched a number of women before he took his photos, there were plenty of gals who knew they’d been kissed and thought it might have been her. Still, in addition to the 3 women who publicly came forth, 11 men claimed to be the sailor. Come on, guys.
Sadly, evidence points to no, for all identified thus far. There were four most likely couples who claimed to be the kissers: one, Edith Shain, the purported nurse was working in Doctor’s Hospital in NYC. Edith even appeared in a parade in D.C. in 2008 that I witnessed. Greta Zimmer Friedman, whom the New York Daily News today heralded “was kissed by a sailor in Times Square in one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century,” was a dental hygienist working near Times Square when the kiss happened. Ms. Friedman died this week at age 92, prompting this post.
The leading candidates for sailors include Carl Muscarello, a former NYC policeman. He later described his condition on VJ Day as being quite drunk and having no clear memory of his actions in the square, although he thought he kissed numerous women, stating that his mother claimed he was the man after seeing the photograph and he came to believe it. George Mendonça was the other, who said he was watching a movie in Radio City Music Hall with his future wife when rumors the war had ended came through. He left with Rita, and when they couldn’t get into a bar, they walked down the street. He saw a woman in a white dress, stating later, “I had quite a few drinks that day and I considered her one of the troops—she was a nurse.” He kissed her, and the rest is infamy, so to speak.
See, there are several problems. One, the couple wasn’t Edith and Carl. For one thing, Edith was only 4’10” and Carl was very tall. Photos of them later were awkward and didn’t match Eisenstaedt’s couple at all.
Albert’s photo wasn’t of a woman kissing a man twice her size. Eisenstaedt did believe Edith to be the woman, but if she was, Carl wasn’t the guy. His story fit, to an extent, but there was no corroborating evidence. Shain died in 2010 of cancer.
George Mendonça who was linked to Greta Friedman, was identified by a team of volunteers from the Naval War College in 2005, based on scars and tattoos, However, since he was drunk, his recollections of time couldn’t be corroborated. And time, it turns out, was critical. According his accounts, events would have transpired at around 2:00 o’clock. However, Donald W. Olson and a team of scientists from Texas State University examined photos, maps, and sun movements, and using shadows and the position of the sun on VJ Day, determined the time of the photo to have been 5:51 P.M. That was corroborated by Gloria Bullard’s account, who remembered it was being around 6:00 and Lt. Jorgensen’s presence. Does that mean everyone was wrong, and it wasn’t George? In my opinion, yes. See, the other bit of evidence has to be the photographer himself, who stated that the sailor he photographed had been kissing numerous women.
Still, there’s the nagging bit of contradiction. That’s Rita, grinning, behind the kissing couple. So, is that really George, or was she just happy to watch the kiss. Or maybe she just looks like Rita, even to Rita George. Clear as mud, no? 🙂 Wanna know my theory? See the sailor next to Rita? To me, that’s George. The kisser isn’t.
Friedman’s identity was corroborated by photo experts and forensic anthropologists. Her story also matches Eisenstaedt’s account, except for the important point that she claimed to be on her lunch break. If that is true, it conflicts with scientists’ time stamp of almost 6 o’clock.
There are others, often corroborated by some facial expert or the other, but none holds mustard. I’ve looked at the candidates, and the only one who fits (most of) the evidence is Greta Friedman. Her face, hairstyle, and uniform match the photo. Her story does too, except for the time, and frankly, I’m slightly dubious about the accuracy of a time stamp based on where a shadow was in Manhattan. However, Eisenstaedt also remembered the shot happened shortly before Truman’s announcement at 7:00 P.M. Does that rule Greta out? Well, if you left at lunch and stayed in the streets drinking and celebrating the rest of the day, would you admit it or remember it? Maybe the time was 2:00, maybe it was 6:00. Who remembers time?
As for the sailor? The only one whose story makes sense is Carl Muscarello. The sailor Eisenstaedt saw was hopping from woman to woman, committing low-grade sexual assaults down the line. Only Carl admitted doing so. The others, other corroborating evidence or no, created fantasies based on how they THOUGHT Eisenstaedt’s photo went. It appears to be a shot of a brief, one-time romantic encounter, and that’s how they remembered it. Instead, it was simply a joyous sailor kissing as many pretty girls as would let him.
When it comes down to it, I’ll always pick the photographer, as my own recollections of photos I’ve taken are pretty precise. I’d put a shooter’s memory of a photo up against any witness, as we tend to pore over the photo again and again, remembering everything we can.
But the point of all this is two-fold, to be honest. First, great photos outlive their subjects, their photographers, and even their events. No one will ever know who those two people are, and I suspect they died knowing who they were and choosing to remain silent. The second point is that this illustrates, clearly, that even the best photo doesn’t tell the story. This was a photo of the culmination of a series of events. If we’d watched a slideshow of the sailor’s progress through the crowd, or if Eisenstaedt picked the instant the woman instinctively wrapped her arm around the sailor’s neck, our view of the event would have been moved, slightly toward assault or romance.
There are photographic lessons as well, as evidenced by how widely known the Eisenstaedt shot is versus the Jorgensen shot: 1) Be connected. No one will see your photo if you don’t connect with people who’ll show it. 2) Take more than one shot. Seconds count, when it comes to composition of moving objects. 3) Don’t react, anticipate. Eisenstaedt did all three, and this is the result: I’m writing about it 71 years later. When was the last time you did something that anyone will discuss in the year 2087?
Photos are important, and I’d go so far as to say they are magic. One can be immortalized for all time by simply having people think they were in a photo. They are representations of the best and the worst of us.
But they are not truth.