I began work on a story about photographers over 80, which was published
in the January 2001 issue of Vanity Fair. After a phone conversation
with photographer Joe Rosenthal, I wrote down these thoughts, which
appear here, belatedly.)
This week Flags
of Our Fathers hit number one on The New York Times Non fiction
best-seller list. Imagine it: an entire book about a single photograph.
A picture, taken at 1/400th of a second--in 1945--is now worth 160,000
Flags of Our
Fathers, by James Bradley and Ron Powers (published by Bantam),
explores the lives and times of half a dozen GIs, veterans of the
Pacific theater in World War II. The men were not picked randomly;
one of them, it so happens, is author Bradley's father, a wartime
medic named John "Doc" Bradley. Of more significance, though, is
the fact that the six were the very men whom fate had ushered into
the famous frame depicting the raising of the flag on the summit
at Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945. The photo has
become an icon. Along with a handful of images, it is an incomparable
symbol of wartime valor.
and Powers' earnest, dutiful narrative is part memoir, part journalism,
part social history. Its power, like that of a vintage wine, derives
from its accumulation, over time, of increments of subtle detail
But not a word
of the book would exist were it not for the vision and talent of
one man: Joe Rosenthal, the Associated Press photographer who made
On a couple
of occasions, I've huddled with Joe on a crisp fall afternoon at
the annual gathering of photojournalism's legends--and young aspirants--at
the Eddie Adams Workshop in rural Liberty, New York. As I recall,
Joe always had a gleam in his eye, and a shy grin which he would
hide beneath his clipped, gray moustache. He looked dapper in his
signature beret. He delighted in the camaraderie of like-minded
photojournalists at the workshop, men such as Hilmar Pabel and Carl
Mydans, combat photographers who had also covered the second World
War from the front lines.
If the best-seller
list had been kind enough to anoint a book about a photograph, it
must have also sparked some joy in the life of that picture's creator.
I called Joe
at his home in San Francisco. We spoke about old friends and his
old beret. He told me he still kept it close at hand: "It's by the
door right here."
But what, I
wondered, did he think of the Bradley-Powers book? He cleared his
throat and said, "I haven't seen it." He quickly added, "I hear
they've done a great job. But I haven't managed to get out [of the
apartment] to the store."
sent a copy along? A publicist? A colleague?
"I haven't seen
it. I've read a couple of reviews, some articles about it." I told
him I'd be sure to send him the book the next morning. (When I placed
a followup call the next week, he mentioned that he had received
it and that his daughter had also brought him a copy--an audio version,
I believe. After pointing out two flaws in the book, he seemed uncomfortable
commenting about it any further. He wanted to read the entire volume
It is remarkable
that the picture, which won the Pulitzer Prize, ever materialized
in the first place. The hoisting of the flag occurred in the span
of only four seconds. ("I swung my camera around," Rosenthal is
quoted as saying in Flags of Our Fathers, "and held it until I could
guess that this was the peak of the action, and shot. I couldn't
positively say I had the picture. It's something like shooting a
football play; you don't brag until it's developed.") Next, the
roll of film went through a bruising gauntlet. Sunlight had leaked
into Rosenthal's camera as he made his 12 exposures that day. ("Two
were ruined" by the light leaks, according to the book. "Those two
were adjacent to the [critical] tenth frame.") In fact, Rosenthal
used sheet film, so the co-authors' use of the term 'frame' is inaccurate.
Then, write Bradley and Powers, "It was tossed into a mail plane
headed for the base at Guam, a thousand miles south across the Pacific.
There the film would pass through many hands, any of which could
consign it to the wastebasket. Technicians from a 'pool' lab would
develop it. Their mistakes were routinely tossed aside. Then censors
would scrutinize it; and finally the 'pool' chief would look at
each print to decide which was worth transmitting back to the United
States via radiophoto."
At last, Rosenthal's
photograph passed before a fateful pair of eyes. "On a routine night
in his bureau office, John Bodkin, the AP photo editor in Guam casually
picked up a glossy print. He looked at it. He paused, shook his
head in wonder, and whistled. 'Here's one for all time!' he exclaimed
to the bureau at large. Then, without wasting another second, he
radiophotoed the image to AP headquarters in New York at 7a.m. Eastern
War Time. Soon afterward, wirephoto machines in newsrooms across
the country were picking up the AP image. Newspaper editors, accustomed
to sorting through endless battle photographs, would cast an idle
glance at it, then stand fascinated. 'Lead photo, page one, above
the fold,' they would bark."
now read Flags of Our Fathers. If you are one of them, you might
be moved to send a note to its authors, James Bradley and Ron Powers,
the latter a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist himself, in care
of Bantam Books (1540 Broadway, New York, New York 10036). But perhaps
you'd prefer to send a note of thanks to Joe Rosenthal (in care
of the Associated Press, 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York
10020). It's his picture, after all.
89. The photograph is 55.
is the Editor of Creative Development for Vanity Fair Magazine.
Along with Graydon Carter, Friend edited the new book Vanity