The Iwo Jima photograph 1

The famous World War II image of the raising of the US flag at Iwo Jima is one of the most influential photographs ever made. Taken by Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal on a Speed Graphic (I have one!) the picture was immediately seen as iconic and potentially useful as propaganda in the war effort. It was published widely and turned the photographer and the marines lifting the flag into celebrities. This is all detailed in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 film Flags of our Fathers.

Rosenthal’s picture is an example of a mythical photograph, one that takes on meanings outside of what is depicted, acquiring an aura of historical significance. It encapsulates one of the puzzles about photography, how an image that is snapped at a fraction of a second, often without much special thought, can become an artefact imbued with symbolism and facets of meaning that are not objectively contained in the representation. The original print version – just a small sheet of paper – gave birth to two Hollywood movies, a gigantic sculptural replica, numerous coins and medallions, a postage stamp and various kitsch merchandise. All this from 1/400th of a second. It is an enigma.

The Iwo Jima photograph, because of its iconic status and wide influence, offers itself as a case study in the medium of photography and its social and political uses. In this and some subsequent posts  I’ll endeavour to unpack this subject, looking first at what happened on the day, and later on some of the photograph’s subsequent incarnations.

First, did you know there were other photographs taken that day? The capturing of Mount Suribachi, the highest peak on the small strategic island of Iwo Jima, was recorded by several photographers attached to the Marine force. There has been confusion and suspicion about what really happened and who shot what almost from the day it was made, but here is a timeline of the events.

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1.  February 23 1945. At about 10.20am, Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, a US Marines photographer, captures the raising of the US flag on top of Mount Suribachi

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2.  February 23 1945. At about 2.35pm, because it can’t be easily seen from the landing beach below, the flag is lowered and a much larger flag is raised. This exchange of flags is recorded by Marine Photographer Private Robert R. Campbell.

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3. February 23 1945. At about 2.35pm, Joe Rosenthal, an Associated Press photographer “embedded” with the Marines, photographs the raising of the second flag. This shot will become the iconic Iwo Jima image.

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4.  February 23 1945. At about 2.35pm. Just to the right of Rosenthal, Marine Cameraman Sgt. William H. Genaust shoots colour cine film of the same moment.

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5.  This moment is depicted in Clint Eastwood’s 2006 movie, Flags of our Fathers.

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6. When the flag is up, Private Campbell takes a photograph of two soldiers saluting.

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7.  A few minutes later, Private Campbell captures Joe Rosenthal taking a group photograph of Marines under the flag. Sgt. Genaust’s cine camera can just be seen on the extreme left, filming the marines.

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8.  Joe Rosenthal’s group photograph. Both his and Campbell’s photograph were taken at the same instant.

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9. Private Campbell takes a portrait of Joe Rosenthal on top of Mount Suribachi, with the landing beach seen below.

February 25, two days later. Despite military censorship, Rosenthal’s photograph is published in the Sunday morning issue of the San Francisco Chronicle, only about forty hours after being taken.

See my other posts on this subject: Iwa Jima photograph 2 and  Iwa Jima photograph 3,

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