Joe Rosenthal, RIP


Photographer Joe Rosenthal died yesterday of natural causes at age 94. Rosenthal is the man who took the immortal photograph of the Marines planting the flag on Mount Suribarchi, Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945, following the costliest fight in Marine Corps history. The photograph depicts Ira Hayes, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Harlon Block, Michael Strank, and Rene Gagnon. The AP obituary by Justin Norton tells the story:

Ten years after the flag-raising, Rosenthal wrote that he almost didn’t go up to the summit when he learned a flag had already been raised. He decided to [go] up anyway, and found servicemen preparing to put up the second, larger flag.

“Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the men start the flag up. I swung my camera and shot the scene. That is how the picture was taken, and when you take a picture like that, you don’t come away saying you got a great shot. You don’t know.”

“Millions of Americans saw this picture five or six days before I did, and when I first heard about it, I had no idea what picture was meant.”

He recalled that days later, when a colleague congratulated him on the picture, he thought he meant another, posed shot he had taken later that day, of Marines waving and cheering at the base of the flag.

He added that if he had posed the flag-raising picture, as some skeptics have suggested over the years, “I would, of course, have ruined it” by choosing fewer men and making sure their faces could be seen.

Reader William Katz comments:

A death like this requires some contemplation. Joe Rosenthal took the most famous picture of World War II – the flagraising on Iwo Jima. If ever a death symbolized the fading of an era, it’s this one.

It’s poignant that Rosenthal’s passing comes at a time when the integrity of photojournalism is being questioned as never before. Rosenthal himself, as the story reports, lived with whispers that he’d posed the flagraising.

Of course, he hadn’t. As he commented, if he’d posed the picture, he would’ve ruined it. And a film of the moment proves the photo’s authenticity.

Joe Rosenthal, as his daughter says in the story, was “a good and honest man.” His word was enough to quiet all but the most incorrigible doubters. We must ask, given some recent events, whether there are many people in mainstream media whose word we would accept without question. I think there are, but their voices need to be heard.


UPDATE: Former Marine Corporal (1967-79) Jim Burke writes to clarify the timeline with regard to the photo:

The photo was taken on the third day of battle not at the conclusion of the month long fight. Also, three of the six “raisers” of the second flag died on that sulphurious speck in the ocean.

Jim signs off: “Semper Fidelis.” Lt. Col. Kim Scott LaBrie of the Nevada Army National Guard writes to the same effect:

Properly speaking, the flagraising didn’t take place following the costliest fight in Marine Corps history. The greater part of the cost was to be paid in the weeks following this event. It was discharged as the Marines and assigned Navy medical personnel moved northward across the airfields and into the mass of successive Japanese defensive positions which stretched to the northeast tip of the island. Perhaps better to say that this image symbolizes the spirit and sacrifice which drove America to achieve success in the face of such horrible odds.

Reader Karen Schmautz writes from California:

As soon as I saw that picture I was reminded of the “posed picture” story that my family and I were told when we were on a guided tour in Washington, D.C. several years ago. When we visited the statue, the DC guide told us that, although the picture was famous, it was only a posed picture. She told us that the flag had already been raised before Rosenthal arrived on the scene, so he made them take it down and raise it up again in order to get the shot. I remember thinking it was such a shame that photographers did that kind of thing in order to elicit certain kinds of emotions from the viewers of the photograph.

I’m so glad that you posted the story and the quotes from the photographer about the picture.

It is a shame that paid guides pass along rumors and half-truths. It makes me wonder about what else I “learned” on our trip to DC that wasn’t exactly true.


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