August 14, 1945 marks the end of World War II in the Pacific arena. Known as Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day), the cultural icon representing that day is a spontaneous photograph taken by a Jewish German-American photographer, Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Born in Prussia, Eisenstaedt emigrated to America in 1935 during Hitler’s persecution of those of Jewish heritage. He lived in New York all his life and was a photographer for Life magazine from 1936 until 1972. His photos graced the covers of 90 Life magazines. Eisenstaedt was an award-winning photographer who shot many celebrities including Ernest Hemingway, Sophia Loren, Marylin Monroe, and Bill Clinton and family.
With so many kudos to his work, why does this one stand out as one of his most notable? What is it about this particular photo that so captivated the hearts and minds of America…and the world?
What began on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese bombing of Peal Harbor kicked off America’s involvement in the bloodiest war in history. Most of the world’s nations, and all of its superpowers participated, and an estimated 50 to 70 million people perished. Six million women left their homes and entered the work force to take over jobs left by drafted soldiers. Wage and price controls, rationing and salvaging of everything you could think of were the norm. Military need surpassed everything else and resources were allocated accordingly. Spotters scanned the skies for enemy planes and emergency blackouts were practiced across the nation.
Even though home front support was high, the years between 1941 and 1945 were possibly the darkest moments in history.
And what Japan started December 7th, in 1941, America ended on August 6th, in 1945. With the German surrender in Europe in May, 1945, all eyes turned to Japan. And the fateful decision was made to unleash destruction never seen before in the history of mankind. Two atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki finally brought Japan to their knees.
On August 14th, Japan surrendered.
New York Times Square streets were soon a sea of humanity celebrating what surely felt like the dawn of a new era. Relief gave way to new hope; hope gave way to optimism; and optimism turned into anticipation of a bright tomorrow and a better future.
And amidst the emotional chaos, poetic justice prevails in a single, intimate scene…captured forever by a Jewish German-American emigrant. It appears as though time is standing still for the couple lip locked together. The death, destruction, desperation and sheer terror of the last 4 years simply falls away, leaving the viewer with a much-needed smile and a gladdening of the heart.
“I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse…. It was done within a few seconds.” ~Alfred Eisenstaedt
Eisenstaedt’s supreme eye and masterful talent captured a moment in our history never to be repeated. It’s the spontaneity surrounding his subjects that elevated his photo to iconic status and reinforced his status as one of the best photographers of all time.
For it’s with this simple yet powerful photo that we passionately kissed the war goodbye.