The Truth of the Matter

By Peter Howe

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 revisionism."

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
Contributing Editor

Peter 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.

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