Iconic Images: 'Kissing the War Goodbye' as Part of the Canon "Shine a Light Campaign"

Iconic Images: 'Kissing the War Goodbye' as Part of the Canon "Shine a Light Campaign"

22nd May 2014 // By Jasmine S. // Artist Selects

One of the most well known photographs of World War II was one that bookended the war itself. When Japan surrendered in August 14, 1945, which in effect ended the war, the United States erupted in celebration. President Truman publicly declared the victory over Japan at 7 P.M.—aptly named V-J Day—and announced the official victory to be scheduled on September 2nd, 1945, after Japan’s formal signing of the surrender terms. The largest crowd in the history of New York’s Times Square gathered to revel in their newfound freedom. The image that encapsulated that moment of ecstasy was a photograph of a sailor embracing a dental nurse amidst the chaos taken by Lt. Victor Jorgensen. 

Jorgensen was a Navy photojournalist who began his work in 1942 after being recruited by Cmdr. Edward Steichen. He was tasked to take photographs for the military and toured around the world capturing images of natives and his fellow military personnels. When the victory was declared, Jorgensen was on duty, and began to document the fateful event. 

The celebration produced two separate and iconic images, taken by different photographers but at the exact same time of the kiss. The photographs were printed in two opposing publications. The first and most famed picture was one by Alfred Eisenstaedt; whose work made it in Life’s twelve-paged spread entitled Victory Celebrations. The second picture was one taken at a different angle by Jorgensen, and was published in The New York Times the following day. The latter photograph became the basis for a 25-feet-tall statue depicting the kiss, displayed in San Diego. 

The photograph of the sailor and the nurse became the image of hope and relief. It displayed human happiness at its finest, tapping into the emotions of other citizens who probably shared the same amount of merriment as the couple. The obscure faces of the sailor and the nurse became symbolic of the cascade of joy that flooded the country. When Japan’s surrender was announced, the nation let loose and took to the streets. It was such a jarring moment for the Americans—who had been enervated by the constant news of death and loss—that the country erupted in a cathartic riot. The kiss, amidst the celebrating crowd, depicted raw human reaction to the end of a war; blatantly releasing pent-up anxieties and sorrows from the past harrowing years. 

Due to the popularity of the image, the identification of the couple became of interest to many reporters for decades. When the couple was asked to step forward, a handful of sailors and nurses claimed to be the subject of the photograph. It was only after careful photographic analysis and witnesses that George Mendonsa and Greta Friedman were identified and brought to the exact location of their kiss on the 67th anniversary of V-J Day. It was after subsequent interviews with the Mendonsa and Friedman that the image of the loving couple was shattered with the reality that it might be a very public sexual assault. Friedman noted that she was grabbed in a vice-like grip by a stranger she did not see coming.

Mendonsa was on a date with another woman—who is seen grinning behind the couple in the photograph—when he heard of the victory, and both of them rushed to a nearby bar to celebrate. Mendonsa, who admittedly had a little too much to drink, ran out of the bar and began kissing women around Times Square. However, it was the kiss with Friedman—perhaps it was the juxtaposition of his black uniform and her white dress—that caught the attention of Jorgensen.

Another notable photograph by Jorgensen was when he was aboard the USS Monterey (CVL-26) in 1944 and captured an image of navy pilots playing basketball. One of the subjects, seen below as the man jumping on the left, was Gerald Ford, who became the 38th president of the United States after the resignation of Nixon. 

Even with two notable images under his belt, Jorgensen was treated as no more than a lieutenant who happened to have a camera. His work was used mainly for the military, and little is known about his personal life. In the three years of his service in the Navy, he captured many intimate moments of military persons of different ranks, especially those that showed their camaraderie. Jorgensen was able to penetrate the depths of private military rooms, documenting wounded victims and injured troopers in a difficult time. 

Although previous works of Jorgensen remains largely unknown to the public, the reverent documentation of the U.S. military and its people is still a collection worth seeing. Jorgensen’s obvious intimacy with his subjects renders his work to be more than simply an objective photograph by an outsider. 

Other photos by Jorgensen include

Sailor on liberty in Manila at fruitstand, May 1945 

Crewmen loaded down with sandwiches on board USS Monterey (CVL-26), D-day on Saipan, June 1944 

Pressure bandaged after they suffered burns when their ship was hit by a kamikaze attack, ca. May 1945

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