I love writing.
The pleasure that I get from plucking the right word out of the air
is comparable to knowing that you pressed the shutter at the perfect
moment. However writing is the only pleasure in my life that I constantly
put off enjoying. It's a bit like sex when you're a teenager, you
know you want it, but you can't get up the nerve to call the girl.
I can assure you that every piece that I've written for the Digital
Journalist was completed only hours, sometimes minutes before the
site was put up.
At the moment I'm writing a book with a deadline of April 1st. Whether
the publisher chose April Fools Day deliberately as the final moment
to receive my manuscript I can't say. What I can say is that the opportunities
for prevarication are even greater with a book than with a column.
I will do anything rather than put finger to keyboard, even to the
extent of reading the photojournalism forums on the DJ. It was during
on such moment of evasion that I read a posting from Nigel Parry,
an excellent portrait photographer whose work has graced the pages
of Esquire and other publications. His comments were as follows:
February 2002's TDJ editorial states:
"More importantly, Thomas Franklin captured a moment in history,
just as Joe Rosenthal did. Imagine if the sculptor of the Iwo Jima
memorial, which overlooks the nation's capitol, had decided to depart
from the likenesses in the photograph. The result would have been
to invalidate the image."
My understanding was that the Iwo Jima photo was posed long after
the original flag raising. I believe I read this in an article the
Saturday magazine of the Independent (UK) some years ago.
Surely there were better examples to draw from than one in which the
cultural revisionism took place at the moment the shutter was pressed?
Because the book that I'm writing is about combat photographers I
happen to know a lot about the arguments around Joe Rosenthal's famous
photograph, which incidentally is the most published picture in the
history of photography. Since I also know Joe Rosenthal, who is the
sweetest, most honorable guy you would ever want to meet, it pissed
me off to hear his most celebrated work described as "cultural
It wasn't more than two days after this that I received a copy of
a piece by Robert Capa's biographer Richard Whelan in which he describes
the extensive detective work that he has done to prove that Capa's
Falling Soldier picture was not set up. Whelan has been involved
in combat himself, although of an academic kind, with the British
journalist and historian Philip Knightly, who claimed in his book
The First Casualty that this photograph, taken in 1936 during
the Spanish Civil War, was a fake.
Oscar Wilde once
said that the pure and simple truth was rarely pure and never simple,
and that is certainly the case with these photographs that rank as
two of the greatest war photographs ever taken. With the Rosenthal
image the full and complete story is this. After four days of intense
fighting on Iwo Jima, Colonel Chandler Johnson, Commander of the Marine
2nd Battalion, ordered a platoon to make the ascent to the summit
of Mount Suribachi and plant the Stars and Stripes, the first time
they would fly on Japanese soil. When the Secretary of the Navy, who
was observing the battle from a ship, decided he would like that flag
as a souvenir Johnson was so incensed that he ordered a another, larger
flag to replace the original, which he intended to keep for the Marine
Corps. Sergeant Mike Strank and his men from Easy Company got the
order to find a larger flag than the original on the justification
that, as Strank put it, "every son of a bitch on this whole cruddy
island can see it."
Rosenthal was convinced that he had missed the main event, the placing
of the first flag that happened earlier on the same day, but shot
one frame of the replacement, plus a posed picture of the men who
had performed the second raising. It was this picture that caused
the controversy. The flag raising photograph hit a nerve with the
public that caused it to be published around the world before Rosenthal
had even seen it. When asked by a fellow correspondent if it was posed,
Joe said yes, thinking that the questioner was referring to the second
frame. The full and fascinating story of the flag is told in the excellent
book Flags of Our Fathers by James Bradley, the son of one
of the flag raisers.
The Capa photograph
is a little murkier. Capa never captioned the photograph, or identified
the dying soldier, and when the picture first appeared in the French
magazine Vu, the caption that accompanied it in the publication did
not state where or under what circumstances the man had been shot.
When I say that Richard Whelan did extensive detective work on proving
the authenticity of the picture I really mean it. He even enlisted
the help of Captain Robert Franks, the Chief Homicide Detective for
the Miami Police Department, who provides compelling evidence that
the soldier in the picture was already dead as Capa shot the frame.
Whelan has even been able to identify the man as Federico Borrell
Garcia who was killed in a battle at Cerro Muriano in September 1936.
Because of this detailed investigation I think that probably the only
person who still believes that the picture is a fake is Philip Knightly.
The thing that I find fascinating about all this is why it is that
there seems to be a need to debunk photographs taken by brave men
under appalling circumstances. After Philip Jones Griffith published
his seminal book on the Vietnam War, Vietnam Inc, in 1971 one
reviewer claimed that the photographs had been shot on sets constructed
at Cine Cita in Rome, using actors as subjects. Where a photographer
would get the money to do this, and why he would want to in the first
place was never explained.
The truth of the matter is that Joe Rosenthal was on Iwo Jima during
was one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War. Over 100,000
Marines faced off against 22,000 Japanese defenders entrenched in
caves dug deep into the volcanic mountain, with carefully placed intersecting
fields of fire that allowed them to target every square foot of the
tiny island. They made no exceptions for the square feet that Joe
Rosenthal stood on.
The truth of the matter is that Robert Capa's courage as a combat
photographer is indisputable, leading him among other acts of bravery
to accompany the first wave of troops to hit Omaha Beach in Normandy,
the toughest beach landing of the invasion. It was courage that he
displayed throughout his life until his death in 1954 when he stepped
on a land mine in Vietnam.
These two men, one a hard working wire photographer, and the other
the quintessential war correspondent have given the world two images
that stand as symbols of both the horror of war and triumph of the
human spirit over war. That these photographs were produced by men
of courage and integrity is as much a validation of their authenticity
for me as any other evidence that can be produced for or against it.
Even if we didn't know the story behind the Rosenthal photograph and
even if Richard Whelan's detective work had proved to be inconclusive
it would not devalue the importance to our culture that the two icons
have acquired in the last fifty to sixty plus years, for they have
transcended the circumstances under which they were taken. Sometimes
truth, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
2002 Peter Howe
Howe is a former picture editor for the New York Times and Director
of Photography for LIFE magazine. From 1998 until 2000, he was a consultant
and Vice President for photography and creative services for Corbis.