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Joe Rosenthal

John Simkin

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Joseph John Rosenthal died last month. He was born in Washington on 9th October, 1911. His parents were immigrants from Russia. He had a strong interest in photography and after finishing college joined the Newspaper Enterprise Association in San Francisco before becoming a staff photographer with the San Francisco Examiner.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Rosenthal applied to join the US Army as a military photographer. Rejected because of his poor eyesight, Rosenthal was eventually sent to cover the Pacific War by the Associated Press. In March 1944 he photographed the American progress toward Japan, including the invasions of Guam, New Guinea and Guadalcanal.

Rosenthal was at Iwo Jima and took some very dramatic pictures of the invasion. On February 23, 1945, while on the top of Mount Suribachi, Rosenthal took one of the most famous photographs of the war: Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima. Of the six soldiers, three were killed within the next few days.

The Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima, was published throughout the world. Rosenthal was later accused of staging the photograph. In fact, this was untrue. "On February 23, having captured Surabachi, a small volcanic hill and the highest point on the island, some marines raised a small flag at its summit. They were photographed by Sergeant Louis Lowery for the marine magazine, Leatherneck. Rosenthal, having talked with Lowery, decided to get a shot of the flag himself. When he arrived, he found the marines raising a larger flag, attached to a pole so heavy it took six men to lever it into place in a small mound of rocks. He stepped just inside the volcano's crater and snapped the photo with his Speed Graphic."

Here is an interesting passage from Frederick S. Voss' book, Reporting the War (1994)

Of all the thousands of news pictures published in the American press during World War II, none was better known,more celebrated, and more frequently reproduced than his Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of six battle-weary soldiers straining to raise the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945.

Brilliantly composed, this image possessed every element that a war photograph could want - a dramatic sense of action, sculptural clarity, and heroic patriotism. When the photograph arrived in the United States, it required but one glance on the part of editors to tell them that here was a picture worth featuring prominently.

Behind Rosenthal's picture is a story fraught with a number of ironies. To begin with, when Rosenthal looked back on his eleven days of recording the battle for Iwo Jima, it was not that image for which he had the greatest professional fondness. Rather it was one taken in the first hours of the invasion. Landing on the island's beaches hard on the heels of the first wave of marines, Rosenthal had found himself, like the armed men around him, dodging a stiff barrage of enemy fire. Seeking picture opportunities while remaining mindful of the need to find cover, he was darting from shell crater to shell crater when he spotted the bodies of two dead marines. In that moment, he conceived the idea for a photograph intended to evoke the essence of what he was witnessing. Thus, bringing the bodies of the two fallen men into his camera's focus, he waited for an advancing marine to come within view, and when one did, he took a picture that, in his estimation at least, embodied the "honest ingredients" of what the Iwo Jima story in its early phases was all about - the dead paving the way so that the living might follow.

Despite the forethought that went into that beach picture, the resulting image did not seemed contrived, which is probably one of the chief reasons why Rosenthal took special pride in it. On the other hand, his picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi four days later - which, in its compositional perfection, did seem contrived and led to conjectures by some that it had to have been carefully posed.

Below are the two photographs mentioned by Voss.

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