Art Through Time: A Global View
History and Memory Art: American Marines Raising American Flag on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima
Photojournalist Joe Rosenthal took this photograph of five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman triumphantly raising the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945.
It almost immediately gained widespread popularity. Within days it was circulating on the front cover of newspapers and magazines around the world and a proposal was soon put before Senate to create a large-scale statue modeled after it. Not long after, Rosenthal’s image was featured on a special postage stamp and an artist’s rendition was reproduced on millions of posters advertising U.S. war bonds.
The Battle of Iwo Jima was a long and bloody encounter, which left 6,800 Americans dead and killed more than twice that number among the Japanese defenders of the island. This horrific reality, however, is far removed from Joe Rosenthal’s iconic photograph. The six U.S. servicemen in the image are seen with bowed heads, their bodies strained forward in the effort of raising the flag. Although their poses hint at activity, the men are endowed with a sculptural quality that seems to simultaneously freeze them in the moment and take them out of time. Cropped, and published without contextual explanation, the image became more than a record of a specific historical event. Rather, it was understood by the public as an emblem of the courage, perseverance, and solidarity of U.S. troops, and in an even more generalized way, came to serve as symbol of American nationalism and patriotism.
The photograph’s succinct, yet powerful message earned Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize in the same year that it was taken. It also, however, raised accusations against Rosenthal that he had staged the picture, the composition of which seemed somehow too perfect. Controversy over the veracity of the photograph was further compounded by the fact that the image as it turned out was not a record of a spontaneous act undertaken by a handful of valorous patriots during the height of battle. The historical reality of the event was much more complicated. On the morning of February 23, a platoon of forty men was sent to Mt. Suribachi on a reconnaissance mission. They were instructed to plant the flag if they were able to make it up the mountain, which they did. Later on the same day a handful of men were called upon to replace the small flag raised that morning with a larger one that might be seen more easily. This second flag-raising is the one Rosenthal captured with his camera.
Rosenthal’s picture raises important questions about the nature of documentation and its impact on historical memory. Though Rosenthal did not in any way direct the scene as detractors suggested, he, like all photographers did make decisions that influenced the final outcome of the image. Media and the public also played a part in shaping the photograph’s relationship to actual events by allowing the “truth” of the image to prevail over the much messier facts of the moment and, indeed, of the larger battle.
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