Alfred Eisenstaedt?s photograph of two ordinary Americans celebrating the end of the Second World War summed up the feelings of a nation, writes David Clark
A sailor Kisses a nurse in New York’s Times Square during an impromptu V-J Day celebration following the announcement of the Japanese surrender and the end of the second world war, 14 August 1945 ©Alfred Eisenstaedt/Time& Life Pictures/Getty Images
It is fair to say that 1945 was perhaps the most significant and momentous year in the history of the 20th century. The Second World War was rapidly drawing to a close and the Allies were advancing through Europe, defeating what remained of the German Army. Concentration camp survivors were liberated, Germany was bombed into a final surrender and Hitler committed suicide.
The war in the Pacific continued until August, when the US Military took the drastic step of dropping atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 14 August, President Harry Truman announced the Japanese surrender and the day became known as Victory in Japan Day (V-J Day). As the crowds began to assemble on the streets of New York to celebrate the end of years of war, Alfred Eisenstaedt was out in the city with his camera, aiming to capture images of ordinary people on this momentous day.
Eisenstaedt was then in his mid-40s and had led a colourful life. After being born in Prussia and brought up in Berlin, he had fought for the German Army during the First World War and been wounded in battle in 1917. After the war he worked as a belt and button salesman in Berlin for ten years. However, in the mid-1920s he took up photography and soon began selling his pictures to the German newspaper Berliner Tageblatt.
Photography became his full-time career in 1929 and he subsequently worked for several European magazines. After suffering the oppressions experienced by other Jewish citizens in Nazi Germany, he emigrated to the US in 1935 and, a year later, became one of the first four photographers hired to work for Life magazine. He was on assignment for Life as the events of V-J Day unfolded.
Eisenstaedt specialised in capturing candid pictures of people and was among the first generation of professional photographers to use a Leica. His diminutive size (he was 5ft 4in/1.6m tall) helped him remain unobtrusive as he worked among the crowds. As he witnessed the day?s chaotic and euphoric scenes, he noticed one sailor running along the street kissing every woman he saw. ?Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn?t make a difference,? Eisenstaedt said. He recalled what happened next in his book Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt of 1985.
?I was running ahead of him with my Leica, looking back over my shoulder, but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me,? he wrote. ?Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. 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.?
By looking closely at the contact sheet of these four frames, we can see that Eisenstaedt remained in the same position as the couple passionately kissed, watched by passers-by. The four frames are similar, but, for Eisenstaedt, one of them was clearly the best. ?Only one is right, on account of the balance,? he said. ?In the others the emphasis is wrong – the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall.?
In common with many other pictures that we now consider ?iconic?, the significance of Alfred Eisenstaedt?s V-J Day picture was not immediately recognised. When it was published, it didn?t appear on the cover but was tucked away on page 27.
Yet as time passed, Eisenstaedt?s picture became the definitive V-J Day image. It captured two young Americans celebrating the end of the war in the famous setting of Times Square. It was also artfully composed and the couple?s pose was exuberant but graceful. However, one of the most important factors was that the faces of both the sailor and the nurse were obscured. This made it less a picture about those individuals and more symbolic of the outpouring of joy and relief experienced by millions on that day.
After shooting the image, Eisenstaedt simply carried on shooting pictures of other people and didn?t take the couple?s name. It wasn?t until the late 1970s that Edith Shain wrote to the him, saying, ?Now I?m in my 60s, it?s fun to admit that I?m the nurse in your famous shot.? Eisenstaedt subsequently visited her at her home in California and photographed her with her family for Life. This sparked a search for the sailor, but despite more than 20 men coming forward, none of them has ever been definitively identified as the man in the picture. Shain died on 20 June, 2010, aged 91.
Eisenstaedt went on to work for Life magazine until 1972 and his photographs were used on the magazine?s cover more than 90 times. He died in 1995, at the age of 96. Despite working on over 2,500 assignments for Life, and photographing the world?s major statesmen, artists and entertainers, his spontaneous image of two ordinary Americans kissing on the street remains his most famous photograph.
Books and Websites
Books: For the stories behind more of Eisenstaedt?s images, see Eisenstaedt: Remembrances, published by Little, Brown & Company and Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt, published by Abbeville Press. Both are available on www.amazon.co.uk.
Websites: There is no official Alfred Eisenstaedt website, but the Wikipedia
entry on Eisenstaedt has general information on his life, a section on the V-J Day photo and a list of links. A more detailed biography of the photographer is available on www.answers.com.
For a full copy of the feature with further images please contact our editorial department on 020 3148 4138 for a back issue dated 28 August 2010