January 21, 2011

The Story Behind the Iconic Image “V-J Day in Times Square” by Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1945

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph of a sailor kissing a woman in Times Square, after news broke of the Japanese surrender in World War II, has lived a storied life since it was taken on August 14, 1945. Often called “The Kiss,” it remains the iconic image of celebration at war’s end, a black-and-white bookend separating an era of darkness from the beginning of a time of peace. It is also an unsolved mystery of identity, a physics problem and, more recently, a source of controversy for those who see in it not mutual revelry but evidence of sexual assault.

V-J Day in Times Square, a photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, was published in LIFE in 1945 with the 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.”

Because he was photographing rapidly changing events during the celebrations, Eisenstaedt did not have an opportunity to get the names and details. The photograph does not clearly show the face of either person involved, and numerous people have claimed to be the subjects. The photograph was shot just south of 45th Street looking north from a location where Broadway and Seventh Avenue converge. It was taken at 5:51 p.m. ET with a Leica IIIa.

“People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture,” he wrote in his 1985 book, Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt: A Self-Portrait. “I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.”

U.S. Navy photo journalist Victor Jorgensen captured another view of the same scene, which was published in The New York Times the following day. Jorgensen titled his photograph “Kissing the War Goodbye”. It shows less of Times Square in the background, lacking the characteristic view of the complex intersection so that the location needs to be identified, it is dark and shows few details of the main subjects, and it does not show the lower legs and feet of the subjects.


Unlike the Eisenstaedt photograph, which is protected by copyright, this Navy photograph is in the public domain as it was produced by a federal government employee on official duty. While the angle of the photograph may be less interesting than that of Eisenstaedt’s photo, it clearly shows the actual location of the iconic kiss occurring in the front of the Chemical Bank and Trust building, with the Walgreens pharmacy signage on the building façade visible in the background.

The photo has also remained the subject of intense scrutiny. Who were these two individuals, who made history with a fleeting encounter in Times Square? Their identities were unknown, and the subject of debate, for years. After decades of dispute, the couple in the 1945 photograph were revealed to be the American sailor George Mendonsa and nurse Greta Zimmer Friedman.

Greta Friedman was 21 years old on August 14, 1945. After reporting to work at a dentist’s office, she heard the news: Japan had surrendered, and World War II was coming to an end. She wandered into Times Square when a passing sailor locked her in an unexpected embrace. “I did not see him approaching, and before I know it I was in this vice grip,” she told CBS news in a 2012 interview. “It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and grabbed. That man was very strong. I wasn’t kissing him. He was kissing me”.

The kisser was the 22-year-old George Mendonsa of Newport, Rhode Island. He was on leave from the USS The Sullivans (DD-537) and was watching a movie with his future wife, Rita, at Radio City Music Hall when the doors opened and people started screaming the war was over. George and Rita joined the partying on the street, but when they could not get into the packed bars decided to walk down the street. It was then that George saw a woman in a white dress walk by and took her into his arms and kissed her, “I had quite a few drinks that day and I considered her one of the troops—she was a nurse”.

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s beautiful image has become the most famous and frequently reproduced picture of the 20th century, and it forms the basis of our collective memory of that transformative moment in world history.



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