Sunday, October 09, 2005

Happy Birthday, Joe Rosenthal

The Pulitzer-prize winning combat photographer turns 94 today. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Rosenthal's famous photograph of U.S. Marines (actually, five Marines and a U.S. Navy Corpsman) raising the flag over Iwo Jima in 1945.

The circumstances that led to that famous event were brillantly retold in James Bradley's Flags of Our Fathers, published in 2000; a film based on the book, directed by Clint Eastwood, is due for release next year. The son of the Navy corpsman who participated in the flag raising, Bradley expertly weaves the stories of six men who came together on Mount Suribachi, and what happened after Rosenthal snapped his epic photograph. Three of the Marines never left the island; they died in combat, during the weeks of savage fighting that followed the flag-raising. The other Marines, could never quite adjust to the sudden fame that came with the publication of Rosenthal's photo. One of them, Ira Hayes, died in an alcohol-fueled fight in the early 1950s; the other, Rene Gagnon, died of a heart attack in the late 1970s, conflicted by the celebrity he once enjoyed (and lost), and memories of those who died on Iwo Jima.

James Bradley's father (Navy medic John Bradley) survied the war and became a prosperous funeral director in Wisconsin, but he, too, carried the scars of battle to his grave. There were no copies of the photograph in the Bradley home, and John Bradley refused all requests for interviews, even one from Walter Cronkite. He rarely spoke about the battle, insisting that the men "who never came home" were the real heroes. After the elder Bradley died in 1994 (at the age of 70), his son found some of his father's military effects hidden in a shoe box. Among them: the Navy Cross. John Bradley won the medal--the nation's second-highest award for valor--for rescuing an wounded Marine on Iwo, just days before the flag rasing. During his lifetime, John Bradley never mentioned the medal to anyone in his family.

As for Mr. Rosenthal, he actually photographed the second flag-raising of the day (a Marine Colonel insisted that a larger standard be hoisted over the former Japanese stronghold). The event happened quickly and Rosenthal arrived late, so he snapped his photograph in a hurry, not sure what the camera had captured. That question was answered when the photograph was transmitted by radio signal to Guam, where the AP had established a bureau. As the photo rolled off the printer, an AP editor exclaimed "there's one for the ages." Rosenthal's photo was a near-consensus choice for the Pulitzer for photography in 1945.

Sixty years later, it's doubtful that a similar photo from Baghdad or Ramidi would receive a similar honor from the Pulitzer jury. Afterall, the Pulitzer jury ignored Thomas E. Franklin's epic photo of three fire fighters, raising an American flag in the rubble of the World Trade Center on the afternoon of 9-11. Instead, the Pulitzer judges gave the photography award to the New York Times, for images of the towers collapse. It has been widely speculated that the judges ignored Franklin's photo (published in New Jersey's Bergen Record) because it was, in their estimation, "too patriotic."

Happy birthday, Mr. Rosenthal, and be happy you worked in an era when photography was judged on merit--not influenced by political correctness.

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