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Raising the Flag: The story of a victory, a photo, a camera

The Jewish war photographer who snapped the iconic image didn't see it before it was published, and no, he didn't pose it
"Raising the Flag" on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal, Public Domain
"Raising The Flag" Photographer, Joe Rosenthal, Iowo Jima, February 23, 1945

On Feb 23, 1945 one four hundredth of a second marked the beginning of the end of a fanatical regime that murdered as many civilians in Asia as perished in the Holocaust. A nation was lifted up by a photograph taken on a camera little changed in a hundred years: a wooden box with a lens in front and a single sheet of film in back. It captured a turning point in World War Two, a war that began in the industrial age and ended in the atomic age. Tojo’s Japan was a regime that projected murderous racism on a global scale with planes, ships and boots on the ground but it was a force that could be confronted head on, as the men in this photo did with uncommon valor. Today, as the seventy fifth anniversary of this moment is marked, the age of industrial-scale conflict is waning. America will admit a stalemate in war for the third time in my life as the United States readies an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw Afghanistan, its longest armed conflict, a battle that can’t be won with better steel, better machines, or even nuclear age technology. Its battlefield is paved with silicon, a war of indoctrination that has no borders, no hills to be taken.

The six men in this photograph were every-man, their faces obscured. Three of them did not come home, one was broken by the war, one was too modest to ever mention that he was pictured. This is a story about the photographer and his brave little black box camera that craved just a sliver of light to reflect so brightly.

Contradictions in Black and White

So many contradictions lie in the shades of gray of this photograph. The photograph is titled “Raising the Flag” taken atop Iwo Jima Island’s Mount Suribachi. It is the most iconic war photo ever taken, yet the man who took it was a civilian rejected from service. It is composed with Renaissance perfection yet it was shot in haste in one single exposure. The photo freezes the action of the men, but cannot still the winds of war that flutter and faintly blur the stars and stripes. By the time the photographer saw the picture he had taken, he was both hailed as a hero and denounced as a fraud.

The photographer’s name was Joe Rosenthal, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants, a thirty three year old civilian news photographer for the Associated Press. He’d been rejected from military service due to poor eyesight and his small stature of less than five foot five. But as a trained press photographer, he found a different way to serve. By the time he arrived at the Battle of Iwo Jima, he had distinguished himself to the Marines by hitting the beaches under fire on the islands of Guam, Peleliu, and Angaur.

Realism, Racism and Censorship were other battles that the camera fought. At the beginning of WW2, photographs from battle areas were censored. No American soldiers were allowed to be shown suffering or dead, unfavorable expressions or behaviors were censored and photos of black soldiers were not published. But by 1943, the war was taking its toll at home. Labor strikes and black markets hurt the war effort. Eisenhower wanted the press unfettered, arguing that “Correspondents have a job in war as essential as the military personnel… . public opinion wins wars.” So in September of 1943, FDR changed the censorship regulation and photographers were encouraged to show the public that their values were at risk and the depth of the sacrifices the troops were making to do so. Women became the driving force in factories. Margaret Burke-White worked for Life Magazine as the first woman war photographer and photographed the Tuskegee Airmen, the all black fighter pilots.

The Camera Behind The Photograph

The camera Mathew Brady used in the 1860s in the civil war looked a bit like an accordion, two wooden box ends, a lens one one end, a bellows in the middle, and a single sheet of film on the other. Joe Rosenthal hit the beach at Iwo Jima with a camera of essentially the same design. It had some better machining and glass and had more ways to focus but the two cameras were close cousins.

Rosenthal’s Graflex Speed Graphic Anniversary Series 4×5 weighed a little over five pounds, the same as a brick. It had interchangeable lenses mounted to a wooden plate that clamped in place. Holding it in one hand while adjusting with the other is hard work. Its shutter was a scroll of silk configured like a sideways Hebrew scroll with four different sized slits in it. One spring was cranked for tension, the other was wound up to select which slot size and the combinations were embossed on a metal chart on top of the box A second lens mounted shutter gave two ways to capture the shot.

Rosenthal was using a “normal” lens, one where the camera sees what you see with no magnification to zoom you in. Lacking long range lenses, Rosenthal was therefore used to working dangerously close to action. The photo he thought was his most important came on that first day landing on Iwo Jima. The Japanese guns were silent, drawing the American troops onto the shore, knowing they would be pinned on the beach when they tried to ascend the wall of black volcanic sand at the top of the beach with its impossibly unstable footing. Rosenthal was there, mired with the Marines in the sulfurous sand.

D-Day on Iwo Jima, February 19, 1945, Joe Rosenthal, Public Domain

“No one that survived that day knew how they did it,” he recalled. As 600 Marines died around him, he jumped from foxhole to foxhole trying to advance, pausing in one where two soldiers in the foreground lay dead. He composed a photo in his mind to portray the cost and chaos of conflict and captured a Marine advancing. Of the famous flag raising photo, he modestly said “I took the picture,” he said. “The Marines took Iwo Jima. ”

A Superior Technology

As primitive as the Speed Graphic may sound today when our cameras are powerful computers and any smartphone does all the work for us, the image quality of that 1945 camera is unmatched today. Your phone’s images are pretty sharp at 12 megapixels. A professional grade SLR camera today captures an image at about 24 to about 61 megapixels in a camera costing several thousand dollars. But the resolution of that single 4 inch by 5 inch negative that Rosenthal took is equal to an astounding 1140 megapixels, over one hundred times sharper than the latest iPhone! My interest in this photo has led me to join a devoted cadre of enthusiasts using large format film for its super high resolution and other capabilities modern cameras don’t have, like turning the lens out of alignment with the film to create focus that varies across the shot and control how lines do or don’t converge. Or just for the wonder of planning one single thoughtful image at a time.

My 1944 Graflex Speed Graphic Camera

We use the word“film” because it is a liquid mix of light sensitive silver halide crystals floating in a gelatin “film” which is dried onto clear plastic sheets. Tiny bits of light darken the silver crystals creating a precise sort of sunburn: darker where the light was greater, yielding the reverse or “negative” of the real world.

Hero and Fraud

The Suribachi photograph looks like a moment of conquest, but it was only the fifth day of a thirty six day battle to conquer Iwo Jima, the costliest battle in Marine history. 6,621 Americans died and 19,217 were wounded. The Japanese death toll was almost 18,500 soldiers, few were captured alive. Those that lived were scorned upon returning home for not dying to defend Japan.

On the day of this photo, Rosenthal and another photographer were told that the Marine General in charge of the assault of Iwo Jima had ordered a flag to be raised on the high point of the island for all to see. Victory would be symbolic and strategic: Iwo Jima the first bit of what was considered by Japan as its homeland. Its airfield was needed for fighter planes to reach the mainland. Rosenthal was told on the beach that a group had already headed up the mountain with a flag and he’d probably missed it. But as a crime scene photographer from Brooklyn in civilian life, he knew to persist, stay late, and above all, he explained, “get the shot.” On his way up he met a Marine movie cameraman, Bill Genaust, a tall mid-westerner with piercing blue eyes. When they reached the top, the Marines were hurrying to raise the flag, not waiting to be photographed. They had fought with Japanese soldiers hiding in caves on the ascent and weren’t keen on lingering. The flagpole in the photo was a heavy piece of pipe that brought water up the hill to a destroyed Japanese fortification.

Rosenthal had already composed his photo in his mind, he and was busy piling up rocks and sandbags to get a place to stand to shoot, since he was only 5′-5″ tall and was looking up at the men. Out of the corner of his eye he saw motion and yelled “here it goes, Bill” to Genaust, who was already filming. He swung his Speed Graphic around, breathed out halfway as any experienced photographer would to steady the shot and snapped. “I wanted a flag going up on Iwo, and I wanted it badly.” He had no idea if the image was good or not. He quickly posed all the soldiers in a row in front of the flag for a second “gung ho” shot then everyone hastily descended from the summit.

Bill Genaust (far left) and Joe Rosenthal (left) On Mt Suribachi, By Bob Campbell, United States Marine Corps, Public Domain,

His film was flown to Guam to be processed in an Associated Press darkroom which took a couple days. The first man to see it exclaimed “it’s one for all time!” Using an early form of scanning, they “wired” the photo to AP outlets across the US where by morning it was on the front page of every major newspaper. President Roosevelt himself saw it and ordered it to be widely publicized. But Rosenthal had not even seen the picture by the time it was a sensation. No doubt jealousy moved the AP’s competitor, Time Magazine’s reporter to follow up on a lead by their photographer on the scene that the photo was posed. Thinking he was asking about the “gung ho” shot, Rosenthal replied, “sure I did.” Both Time and Life reported that the photo was a fraud, a posed photo that made a mockery of the sacrifice of the soldiers. The controversy roiled for weeks. At the same time, Genaust’s movie film was flown to the Philippines for processing which took ten days. It proved that the photo was indeed authentic, captured in the moment. Life corrected their reporting but never retracted their accusation. The impact of the photo was astounding. It was printed on three million posters displayed throughout the US and became the centerpiece of a war bond drive that raised a staggering twenty three billion dollars. One old article called it “The Photo That Saved the Marines”

Bill Genaust, the movie man filming next to Rosenthal never saw his own film that cemented the legacy of “Raising the Flag.” He was killed in combat on Iwo Jima a week later, shot by a Japanese soldier in a cave his squad was trying to clear.  He is still buried in there in that very cave that collapsed in an explosion during the battle and never since found.

A Dusting of Silver

There will be a small seventy fifth anniversary “Reunion of Honor” ceremony at the summit of Suribachi this year. At least twenty of the men that fought there will attend. The island can only be visited once a year. It is a military base and, with live munitions from 1945 still being unearthed, not safe for visitors. There is an ongoing effort to find fallen soldiers among whom movie man Bill Genaust is one.   At the summit, there is a small marker to both Japanese and American fallen where hundreds of dog tags, cloth name patches and ribbons are draped.

The heft of a 1945 Graflex Speed Graphic in my hands is my link to that day. I’m as awed as my twelve year old self developing my first photo in baths of chemicals in our basement with my father, who had been in the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of Buchenwald yet never said a word about it till late in life. His generation didn’t love telling their own stories. Of the three flag raisers from the photograph who survived modestly took to his grave that he was in that photo, a fact only proven six months ago. Like Rosenthal, he was also from Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa that is. Another one of the six was a Native American who could never free himself from survivors’ guilt and drank himself to death   His story is told in a song sung by Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes.”

On the fifth of August, a half a year after “Raising the Flag” was taken, three B-29 bombers rendezvoused over the island of Iwo Jima. They gazed down at Mount Suribachi, thought of those six men and their flag, then turned to Okinawa to unleash the furious birth cry of the atomic age.

The film of silver crystals that captured “Raising the Flag” is gone and the Atomic Age that ended that WW2 has been overrun by the Age of Silicon.  Our images are now captured on a wafer of silica sand. In the late 1940’s about two billion film exposures were taken every year. Today our world takes that many photographs before lunch. Yet they are a vapor. Where will the record we make of ourselves all be in a generation? We have no shoe boxes full of pictures to leave to our children, no albums to look back on and frame the way forward. Unless we have planned for the “great digital beyond”, all of the photos of our generation will be lost in a smartphone update or the next unpaid cloud drive bill. Generations after us will wonder who we were, our moments and memories stored on crystals of sand quietly blown away.

Some will ponder monuments or histories on this anniversary of Mount Suribachi’s flag raising or honor the last of the thinning ranks of the surviving warriors. It is a seventy five year old camera that opens to me what is true and enduring from that day: the skill and sacrifice it took to win a war and capture a whisper of glory on a camera so honest to its singular task of balancing time and light and etch them on a dusting of silver.

About the Author
Steve Brown is a registered architect and has headed an architecture, environmental design and construction firm in the Philadelphia, PA area since 1985.
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