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Nov 05, 2008

Kissing War and Tasting Victory

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “Times Square Kiss” is among the most famous photographs ever taken.With the exception of Joe Rosenthal’s “Raising Old Glory on Mt. Suribachi,” it is possibly the most reproduced, imitated, and performed photograph of any in the pantheon of U.S. photojournalism or documentary photography. It is, as Time/Life might say, the center piece in the American family photo album, a representation, as one caption of the image has it, of “The Way We Were.” It should come as no surprise then, when critics draw upon it to call attention to the hypocrisies and tragic ironies of U.S. policies and cultural practices. The most recent case in point is this digital illustration by Koren Shadmi that appears in “Artists Against War,” a collaboration between The Nation and The Society of Illustrators to showcase the work of 60 prominent graphic artists whose work “challenges the self-destructive ignorance, indifference, incompetence and corruption that is the result of the U.S. Middle East foreign policy.”


The illustration is easily recognizable as an imitation of Eisenstaedt famous photograph, but of course the differences are both pronounced and resonant. The original is a bright and fairly high contrast image produced in the grey scales of black and white film and according to the strict conventions of realist photography; there are shadows, but they are barely recognizable, and in general the visual tableau invokes the symbolic brightness of a new day, just as the occasion of V-J Day invited the promise of the return to a golden past. Following the visual conventions of the graphic novel, the illustration above is drawn in muted tones and tinctures, only slightly more colorful than the black and white photograph. The kissers here are cast at the edge of a dark shadow (emanating from the space of the viewer, and pointing, no doubt, to the future), the background of the drawing enveloped in either billowing smoke or black clouds, and in any case the overarching tonality of the image is dark and ominous rather than bright and joyful, menacing rather than hopeful.

It is the thorough absence of joy and hope that determines the affect of the illustrated kiss. The photograph represents a joyful moment, its kiss a passionate and public performance of the release of nearly four years of repressed desires. Thanatos gives way to eros, marked not only by the kiss itself, with the promise of greater release yet to come, but by the way in which civilian spectators witness the event with approving smiles. This is the world we want to live in, and there is a sense in which the bodies of the kissers channel the emotional energy—the hopes and desires—of the people that surround them as the vectors of the image vaguely recall the “V” for victory, men on his side, women on hers.

By contrast, the illustrated kiss is neither joyful nor passionate, but rather decidedly foreboding. The awkward and somewhat restrained left hand of the sailor in the photograph now holds a gun poised for use (although the enemy remains unseen and thus anonymous), while his right hand is covered in red blood that blemishes the purity of the nurse’s white uniform and forces us to acknowledge that eros and thanatos are inextricably entwined. The kiss is made to seem all the more impersonal—if not also somewhat transgressive—by the fact that the kisser is wearing night goggles as well as a wide array of weapons and military accoutrements. And note too that the pair are no longer surrounded by ordinary citizens—an indulgent and approving public—but by an anonymous and armed military force. It is not clear that the surrounding soldiers even notice the kissers, and even if they do, they certainly offer no signs of approval. Overshadowed by the events of war, both the presence and voice of the public has been erased—a telling cipher, perhaps, for our current political condition. If victory has been achieved here, it clearly seems to be short lived.

The Eisenstaedt photograph is often captioned as a “return to normalcy,” and on one popular poster for sale, it is titled “Kissing the War Goodbye.” From this perspective the normal world is a rejection of the dark and dreary culture of war, and with it the eternal return to a bright and joyful place where the sexual obsessions of private life can operate in tandem with the decorum necessary to the discipline of public life without the hint of tension or irony. By contrast, Shadmi’s illustration is titled “Tasting Victory,” and thus frames the image as the embrace of war, rather than its rejection. From this perspective, the normal world seems to be a culture where one eroticizes the taste of military success and in which wars are cultivated and eventually normalized in a never ending cycle of violence.

It is easy, of course, to prefer one image over the other at any given moment in history, entranced either by the romance of the photograph or the critical skepticism of the illustration. But what we need to acknowledge is the fundamental sense in which the two images are inextricably connected. Treated apart from one another, each underwrites a more or less simplistic political fantasy of civic life that invariably falls short of the complex social and political needs of the late modern world; treated together the two renditions remind us that each representation is a limited construction of the world and that a healthy polity needs both romance and skepticism—and more—in order to enable and sustain a robust public culture.

Illustration Credit: Koren Shadmi



Kissing War and Tasting Victory


5 Responses

  1. Lucaites says

    Hi Farmer. I think “lie” might be too strong of a word because it implies some degree of malice and intent, but it is certainly mistaken, a falsehood. And if you pay attention to what we write here and in our book you’ll see that our point is precisely to take account of how images get “captioned” in a wide range of ways through production, usage, appropriation. So the title of the website is somewhat ironic.
    I agree with you completely that interpretation can be “too cheap and easy.” But since it’s all we have, I guess I’d like to try to get folks to do it with with more nuance and complexity. And the only way to do that is to put one’s interpretations out there and to discuss it in a more or less democratic context. So thanks for stopping by. And, oh, as to cameras as guns: Well, yes, I suppose there is a strong sense in which they are. And there is no question that like guns they can be used to do incalculable damage. On the other hand, I’d sure as hell rather be “shot” by a camera than an AKC-47 … But like you, what the hell do we know?

  2. Hariman says

    Tom Mitchell nailed this one: “The interaction of pictures and text is constitutive of representation as such: all media are mixed media, and all representations are heterogeneous; there are no ‘purely’ visual or verbal arts, though the impulse to purify media is one of the central utopian gestures of modernism” (Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation [Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 1994], 5).

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