Alfred Eisenstaedt’s VJ Day in Times Square: The story behind one of the world’s most famous images

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s image ‘V-J Day in Time Square’ became an iconic image that signified the end of the Second World War and epitomised the celebratory atmosphere of V-J Day. This emotionally-charged image looks as though it’s a screenshot from the end of an exciting Hollywood film and is both romantic and uplifting. We can’t help but put our own imagined and fanciful stories to the scene.

Alfred Eisenstaedt VJ Day in Times Square

But what is the real story behind one of the world’s most famous images?

The shot is actually known under a number of different names: V-J Day in Times Square, The Kiss, and V-Day. The picture itself shows an American sailor kissing a woman wearing a white dress and was taken on V-J Day in Times Square, New York City on 14 August 1945.

A week later it was published in Life magazine and displayed amongst a number of other shots showing celebrations taking place around the United States in a twelve-page feature called ‘Victory’. The caption of the shot in Life read: “In the middle of New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.”

Interesting, although Eisenstaedt’s picture was given pride of place as a full-page display, it wasn’t the only picture that featured people kissing. It was printed opposite three other shots showing people kissing during celebrations in Washington DC, Kansas City, and Miami.

Although at the time kissing was a favourite pose that photographers loved to capture when photographing service personnel, Eisenstaedt’s shot was spontaneous. It became the shot that captured the moment the end of the war on Japan was announced by President Harry S Truman at seven o’ clock.

The couple in the shot didn’t even know each other, as Eisenstaedt explains: “In Times Square on V.J. Day 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. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within seconds.” From Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt via Wikipedia.

Several people later came forward claiming that it was them in the picture, but according to The Daily Mail, George Mendonsa was formally identified as the man in the photo, and Greta Friedman the woman, who was a dental assistant in Manhattan.

In an interview for the Veterans History Project in 2005, Friedman described the moment: “Suddenly, I was grabbed by a sailor. It wasn’t that much of a kiss. I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss… it was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”

As for George Mendonsa, he was engaged to another woman at the time and was drunk. However his fiancee did apparently forgive him for his actions and married him.

Eisenstaedt himself was born in 1898 in Dirschau, which was West Prussia at the time. He emigrated to the United States in 1935, where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1995. His contribution to photography, and to the world in general, was great and he can owe his fame in large part to one single shot, capturing one fleeting moment in time.

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