V-J Day in Times Square (1945) By Alfred Eisenstaedt

Image Analysis

V-J Day in Times Square (1945)
By Alfred Eisenstaedt

In a nutshell, the reason behind me choosing the well-known V-J Day in Times Square photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt [1] for an image analysis, was that it immediately captured my attention, enlivened my imagination, undeniably causing a stir in me. Besides, I have opted for this particular image because of its diverse visual array unfolding an astonishing story that stays with the beholder for a long time. Moreover, it gives a fascinating insight into the time when, at the end of World War II, the perpetual loop of America’s staggers finally came to an end. It depicts a blissful, unconditional and candid moment, a moment when two strangers gave a farewell kiss to the war, welcoming victory over Japan [2]. Even by glancing at it for the first time, the beholder can soak in right away the joyous atmosphere of freedom. My initial reaction to the image was quite positive, so I decided it might turn out to be worth calling the shots to catch a second glimpse at it.

            As far as the elements of the photo are concerned, the key-elements of the image are the people in it, the kissing couple in the central part of the shot constitutes the most important fragment, while people scattered in the background, fairly out of focus, are not as significant as the lovebirds in the front. There is little doubt that the kissing individuals stand more or less still, while the marching crowds in the background move towards the photographer’s lenses, so their movement is linear, they move forward from behind. The position of the kissing strangers in the focal point of the photo is defined by their tight embrace, the arms of the lad encompass a huge part of the lass’ body, as he grabs her waist entirely. The man’s position indicates his superiority over the girl, who slightly slouches backwards in his arms. The steady, vertical position of the main characters’ legs are slightly broken by the girl’s bent knee. The position of their bodies defines an ascending vertical line suggesting aspiration, positivity. The fact that the kissing strangers are rather closely positioned towards the lenses, might suggest that the viewer is invited to feel as if she were also a part of the event. The sunlight, in all probability, comes from the upper left side of the frame, as the right part, mainly the right corner down in the image is highly lit, brightened by the beaming rays of the sun. The clothing of the characters can be divided into three groups: in the background, the massive crowds mainly wear casual clothes distinctive to the fashion of the era back then, while, along with the male in the front, other men display some dark sailor’s suits, but there is only one individual, the kissing woman in the front, who wears a nurse’s uniform, being dressed all white, from tip to toe. Therefore, the two main characters of the image wear opposing, yet complementary and harmonizing colors: black and white. This creates a vast contrast. The kissing couple is surrounded by an abundance of other people, who partly become details of the background, having less significance than the ones in the central part. Male individuals seem to dominate over female ones, as there are a handful number of women. While the majority of men are laughing, women are either covered so that their facial expressions are not visible, or they are smirking and seemingly chit-chatting in smaller groups about the kissing strangers. By their sightline, almost all of the people portrayed are directly looking at the main characters of the photo, only a few within the frame look elsewhere. As far as the facial expressions of people are concerned, it is a fact of life that mainly everyone smiles and radiates happiness. This might not only be the consequence of the unexpected kiss, but also, that of the peace promoted by the American victory. None of the people tend to physically touch the couple engaged in the kiss. Sunlight is merely reflected on the individuals that are placed in the right part of the frame, this gives the illusion of the lack of flash light being used in the making. There is a man within the frame whose body is half cut out of the image. This gives the sensation that the image is boundless, it continues, flows in time and space. Age differences, gaps between the crowds of people are evident. Ascending buildings in the background strike across as distant objects, giving the illusion of depth, as they are quite small compared to human beings. The central, smallest building in the background forms a triangle with the central characters of the image. This gives the apparation of aspiration, although the road and the ascending lines themselves lead the eye of the beholder from the ground towards the sky (from bottom to the upper side). Details that refer to that particular era are the pieces of clothing unique to the 20th century fashion, mainly the 1940s style. Moreover, the fact that men wear sailor’s suits represents the returning of the troops on native soil after the end of the tug of war. Furthermore, the caption “BOND” in the right side of the photo reflects the physical bond between the individuals engaged in a kiss, so in this case the textual message is associated with the image itself, enhances its meaning.

Unique compositional elements within the frame contribute to a bigger framework of the whole picture. As individual parts, the kissing people in the central part, the crowds and the buildings all add up to communicating the importance and significance of that historical moment.

Historically, this photo is of paramount importance as it perpetuates the joyous end of the World War II, a festive victory, when the American troops conquered the Japanese ones. The photo was taken on the 14th of August, in 1945, in New York City’s Times Square in the boroughs of Manhattan [3]. The image visually portrays the unconditional and pure enchantment which in fact, meant the end of the perpetual loop of wars back then. New Yorkers from all walks of life celebrated their freedom, some of them in a bolder manner than others, as the sailor on the photo turned out to have behaved. The photo captures two strangers kissing, that turned into a legendary kiss in the end, despite the fact that it was quite a spontaneous one. The sailor, drunk from the nation’s victory, kissed any woman in his sight. In only a blink of an eye, he grabbed a girl dressed in all-white, in a nurse’s uniform, and kissed her. It was a lucky coincidence that the photographer made the snapshot, as he did not intend on doing it at first. A week later, the photo was published in Life magazine [4]. It gained a world-wide popularity, it is an iconic image related to the end of the World War II [5]. It also became part and parcel of American popular culture, it was also remade as a sculpture in Times Square (namely, The Unconditional Surrender) [6].

From a technical point of view, this is a photo, which is not taken in color, it is a shot where only black and white hues holds sway. There is a striking contrast between black and white, as suggested first of all by the main characters’ dresses. White, the color attributed to the nurse’s dress, is the color of purity, innocence, honor, peace and liberty, but it is also a nuptial color. No wonder than, the nurse represents the freedom achieved by winning the war over Japan, the peace that is thus promoted, and also, she stands for innocence and femininity as well. On the other hand, the sailor, dressed in all black, not only suggests power, strength, masculinity, but also, his appearance points out life and fertility that indicates the victory of the nation as well. These complementary colors highlight a boundary between innocence and guilt. Also, the hierarchy between the man and the woman is accentuated through colors: the woman is subordinated to the sailor. What is more, the rare, white dress of the woman stands out of the whole picture as if it would be a white flag promoting peace. The embracing couple, dominated by black and white colors, are at the helm of the image since both colors are the combination of all colors on the spectrum. The composition of the photo is defined by the presence and the interaction of color, form, points, lines, shapes, depth and movement, that also give dynamism to the image. In the central part of the picture, the individuals sharing a kiss are made up of two separate points unite, while there are several other points in the background forming dissimilar groups, but on balance, in the end, they work as a single unity, suggesting wholeness. The way in which points are linked to each other is rather haphazard, and creates a hierarchical order according to which the two main characters in the front are of utmost importance, in focus. The lack of rigidity is not only conveyed by the atmosphere and the emotional impact of the image, but also, by the absence of horizontal lines. However, the vertical lines of the ascending buildings suggest aspiration, endeavor. Lines tend to lead the eyes of the beholder from down to the upper part. Also, the road is shown through an illusionary perspective on the horizon, as the two sides of the road will seemingly unite. The composition suggests the triumph petrified in a historical moment by the aspiring lines. Lines on the road, starting from the left frame, draw the attention of the viewer towards the lovebirds in the center. The curved line formed by the slender figures of the embracing couple, who slightly slouch, imitates an ascending diagonal, so no wonder than the whole image is laden with a positive effect. Also, the sightline of the mases is directed towards the center of the attention, the kissers. The composition is quite balanced with its irregular shapes forming together the shape of a triangle in the middle, defined by the embrace and the upper-central building at the top. Incredible as it may seem, the composition is geometrically well-arranged, as a common compositional scheme, the rule of thirds defined by the golden ratio, which commonly appears in nature (therefore it is appealing to look at), can be applied to this photo. By and large, when dividing it according to the golden rule of thirds, what we get is the actual kiss being shared on a segment of a 1:3 ratio (horizontally), this places even more significance on the subject and the focal point of the photo: the kiss. This awe-inspiring artifact is a balanced one, partly due to the fact that it is related to the prosperous application of the rule of thirds.

The shot was captured with a Leica Illa [7], a small 35 mm film-camera [8], and he lightning undeniably came from natural source, the sun, from the upper left part of the image. The photographer neither preferred large, bulky instruments, nor favored flash attachments to natural light [9]. Alfred Eisenstaedt took the photo in the afternoon, at nearly 6‘o clock [10]. The photograph has quite a good quality, taking into consideration the techniques and technologies available at hand at that time.

In terms of the gestalt and constructivism theory, sensing and perceiving this image can trigger a diverse array of mental processes. Since people in the background are fairly smaller than the ones in the focus, they are grouped by the viewer into a separated group from those in the limelight, although, another classification is possible if we think of the two groups of genders or even the two colors that subconsciously create dissimilar groups in our minds. The distance between the main characters and the less important, smaller people is significant, therefore, according to proximity, this generates another classification in the brain when looking at the photo. By looking at the masses in the background, grouping them together is inevitable as we mentally tend to steer clear off the spaces left between them, perceiving them as forming continuous lines (continuation). The crowd is rather characterized by dynamism, they give the illusion of moving in the same direction and in the same speed, so they are perceived as part of a single stimulus (common fate). In addition to this, the beholder voluntarily places priority on the kissing couple as it is a more interesting and outstanding piece of information (constructivism).

The identity of the kissing strangers was never clearly revealed. From an ethical point of view, this contradicts the rule of golden, as the photographer didn’t take their personal rights into account. The kiss was actually a forced one [11], therefore the photo captures an act of a sexual assault besides the delightfulness caused by the national success. Conversely, in this photo the hedonistic philosophy is also at work, as it seizes an action, a kiss that is based on the personal motivation of the sailor. Moreover, this shot demonstrates hedonism as the photographer intended on capturing a moment of paramount importance in the American history. The love affair presented by the image is also an example for the principle of the veil of ignorance, due to the fact that the audience, looking at the photo, might think of a deceased relative or a friend who fought for the country in that war, and by making this connection, the beholder may feel that battling for the country was not doomed to be futile.

            As far as a cultural perspective is concerned, the image is laden with symbols and metaphors. First of all, the whole image itself is an indexical sign, as it is directly connected to the signified event, and it indicates the existence of that particular event and the existence of those people captured in the photo. The kiss itself is an icon, as it looks like what it had been (the signifier, the image of the kiss, imitates the signified, the actual kiss). On the other hand, the kiss is also a symbol if we think of it as a representation tool for something more than a physical connection between two people. In this case, the kiss is associated with the delight of being independent. Also, the kiss can be seen as a metaphor that has a meaning for the society as a whole, particularly in view of the fact that a kiss stands for love, and in this context it may symbolize an intense love felt towards the country, the motherland, as right at that time America had just been released from constant struggling. Basically, from a bird’s eye view, the story luring behind the photograph pretty much is the same to what the visual message communicates through symbols. In this aspect, the visual story conveyed also affirms that current cultural values can be represented by similar no-holds-barred artifacts. This symbol contributes to a greater understanding of the whole image.

            By looking at the photograph from a critical point of view, this aesthetically pleasing image not only satisfies the beholder by a unique and visually tuned structure, but also, this dazzling artifact fascinates the mind with its symbolical message as well. Alfred Eisenstaedt was a master of his craft: he managed to transmit the genuine atmosphere of blissfulness after a nation’s triumph by capturing a goodbye kiss to the war. After savoring slowly and analyzing this image, it is a fact of life that it can play havoc with the beholder due to the multitude of its details. However, the image might be more than a luring, visually tuned and stirring work of art, and even more than just a snapshot displaying two accidental strangers sharing a kiss. This powerful image is successful at transmitting a rare state of mind, that of unconditional enchantment caused by the freedom promoted for a whole nation. No wonder than, this farewell kiss is not only an iconic work of the photographer, but it is also representative of the American cultural heritage.

[1]V-J Day in Times Square.” In Wikipedia, January 23, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=V-J_Day_in_Times_Square&oldid=879759787.

[2] “13 Unforgettable Photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt.” Google Arts & Culture. Accessed February 2, 2019. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/qgJyHMDOPffkLQ.

[3]“13 Unforgettable Photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt.” Google Arts & Culture. Accessed February 2, 2019. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/qgJyHMDOPffkLQ.

[4] “Lomography – Influential Photographs: Times Square Kiss, 1945 by Alfred Eisenstaedt.” Accessed February 2, 2019. https://www.lomography.com/magazine/63013-influential-photographs-times-square-kiss-1945-by-alfred-eisenstaedt.

[5] “Alfred Eisenstaedt | Artnet.” Accessed February 2, 2019. http://www.artnet.com/artists/alfred-eisenstaedt/.

[6]V-J Day in Times Square.” In Wikipedia, January 23, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=V-J_Day_in_Times_Square&oldid=879759787.

[7] “”V-J Day, 1945: A Nation Lets Loose”. Life. Archived from the original on September 1, 2013. Accessed February 2, 2019.

[8] “13 Unforgettable Photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt.” Google Arts & Culture. Accessed February 2, 2019. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/qgJyHMDOPffkLQ.

[9] “13 Unforgettable Photos by Alfred Eisenstaedt.” Google Arts & Culture. Accessed February 2, 2019. https://artsandculture.google.com/theme/qgJyHMDOPffkLQ.

[10]V-J Day in Times Square.” In Wikipedia, January 23, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=V-J_Day_in_Times_Square&oldid=879759787.

[11]V-J Day in Times Square.” In Wikipedia, January 23, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=V-J_Day_in_Times_Square&oldid=879759787

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