Iwo Jima Photo
Iwo Jima Flag Raising – The Great Prints series
On February 23, 1945 Joe Rosenthal, an AP photographer, took one of the most iconic images of World War Two – the planting of the American flag on the summit of Mount Suribachi. In an era of photography when every setting was a manual one and you didn’t see the shot till it was developed – Joe managed to capture a shot that gave the nation hope, spurred people to buy more savings bonds and showed the outcome of the persistence and toughness of the US Marines. In a sense, you could call it a “viral” image as it was reprinted all over the country and ultimately became the model for a monument. Here’s how it all happened and why the image was so successful . . . . .
On February 23rd of 1945, Joe Rosenthal was one of several cameramen and videographers on Mount Suribachi embedded with the Marines as they fought their way up the mountain against the Japanese army. Having fought their way to the top, the marines were given a flag to raise so those below could see. Already at the top with the Marines was Sgt. Louis Lowery, a Marine photographer for Leatherneck magazine who had already gotten pictures of the flag as it was being raised. Of course, as soon as it was raised the Japanese soldiers opened fire on the summit causing everyone to take cover. In the rush of taking cover, Lowery fell over 50 feet down the mountain breaking his camera in the process. As soon as the firefight subsided, he decided to head down the mountain to get new equipment.
On the way down Lowery saw Rosenthal coming up towards the summit, along with two others – another photographer Pfc. Bob Campbell and motion picture photographer Sgt. William Genaust and shouted over to them “Hey, your late fellas – there’s already a flag up there!” Lowery told them they should keep going though just to check out the view from the top. As they got closer to the summit, they could see the flag coming into view. Rosenthal said later that he was struck by the wave of emotion about what it cost to put the flag up there. You can easily see in the photograph that the flag was planted among the wreckage created by hundreds of shells and ammo tearing up the ground. Upon reaching the top, the three of them saw that the marines had a second flag, larger than the first which they were about to hoist in its place. Orders had come from below to put up a larger flag so it could be seen from further away. That’s when Rosenthal knew he had a chance to get a shot of the flag being raised.
Rosenthal had to choose quickly whether to shoot both flags simultaneously – or photograph the second flag as it was being raised. Keep in mind, that at that time you only got one shot at a time and all of the settings and processes were manual ones. He chose to wait and get the larger second flag being raised and that decision created the 1945 equivalent of what is considered a “viral” image today. Rosenthal explained “While all of the photographers were taking their positions to get the shot, Genaust – the motion picture photographer — turned to him and asked “I’m not in your way, am I?” Joe turned to look at Genaust, who saw the flag rising and said “Hey, there it goes!” Joe quickly raised his camera to his eye as the flag pole swung upwards and clicked the shutter capturing the flag raising at the mid-point. He captured the image at the perfect point – any earlier and it would have been too low and a second later and it would be fully upright. Capturing it when he did created a diagonal line pointing straight to the corner of the image and gave the image a sense of balance and symmetry. Add to this the action of the Marines in raising it with their feet planted on the ground and their hands pushing the pole upwards as a team with the wind unfurling the flag in the breeze. He caught the event at the peak of the action resulting in an amazing composition.
While Lowery captured the first flag as it was being raised, Rosenthal captured the second and more iconic image. Below is Lowery’s original image of the smaller first flag raised which never got as much attention. Although it does add to our knowledge of the events of the day when combined with all of the other images taken that day it just didn’t compare in emotional power to the one Rosenthal captured as the larger flag was being raised.
Rosenthal’s image became the unofficial image of the Marine Corps and WW2 in the Pacific and the logo of the National Museum of the Marine Corps mimics the shape of Rosenthal’s image. The Marine Corp later transformed the image into a memorial statue in Arlington, Virginia to honor all Marines. See Marine Corp Memorial Statue image – Jason Odell