Joe Rosenthal

Joe Rosenthal

Joseph John Rosenthal was born in Washington on 9th October, 1911. His parents were immigrants from Russia. He had a strong interest in photography and after finishing college joined the Newspaper Enterprise Association in San Francisco before becoming a staff photographer with the San Francisco Examiner.

On the outbreak of the Second World War Rosenthal applied to join the US Army as a military photographer. Rejected because of his poor eyesight, Rosenthal was eventually sent to cover the Pacific War by the Associated Press. In March 1944 he photographed the American progress toward Japan, including the invasions of Guam, New Guinea and Guadalcanal.

Rosenthal was at Iwo Jima and took some very dramatic pictures of the invasion. On February 23, 1945, while on the top of Mount Suribachi, Rosenthal took one of the most famous photographs of the war: Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima. Of the six soldiers, three were killed within the next few days.

The Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima, was published throughout the world. Rosenthal was later accused of staging the photograph. In fact, this was untrue. "On February 23, having captured Surabachi, a small volcanic hill and the highest point on the island, some marines raised a small flag at its summit. They were photographed by Sergeant Louis Lowery for the marine magazine, Leatherneck. Rosenthal, having talked with Lowery, decided to get a shot of the flag himself. When he arrived, he found the marines raising a larger flag, attached to a pole so heavy it took six men to lever it into place in a small mound of rocks. He stepped just inside the volcano's crater and snapped the photo with his Speed Graphic."

After the war Rosenthal became chief photographer and manager of Times Wide World Photos. Later he worked for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Joseph John Rosenthal died on 20th August, 2006.

Joe Rosenthal, Raising the flag on Iwo Jima (February, 1945)
Joe Rosenthal, Raising the flag on Iwo Jima (February, 1945)
© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Jorge Lewinski, The Camera At War (1978)

The picture of the raising of the Stars and Stripes on the top of Mount Suribachi was published throughout the world. It was taken by an Associated Press photographer, Joe Rosenthal. Later it was established that this was not a photograph of the original event. The first flag-raising was photographed by S/Sgt Louis R. Lowery, working for the Marines' magazine Leatherneck. While the ceremony was taking place, a hidden Japanese survivor threw two grenade at the group on the summit. The first grenade blew up the flag; the second fell at the feet of the photographer. Lowery dived down the steep side of the dormant volcano, rolling some 50 feet before he stopped, having dislocated his side and breaking his cameras. Later the same day a second raising of the flag was arranged, using a larger flag. This time a far more powerful an carefully worked-out picture was shot by Rosenthal. It was this second picture, not the one taken by Lowery - which was also preserved - that gained the fame.

At first no one was aware of the subterfuge. The picture was taken at its face value - as a very good piece of photojournalism. However, when it was disclosed that it was not in fact the picture of the original flag-raising, an argument arose as to its authenticity. If it is considered to be a fake, undoubtedly we are emotionally liable to view the picture with less interest and enthusiasm. But it was not intended to mislead the public, nor, do I think, did the photographer himself perpetrate the myth of the picture in any way. It was a genuine reconstruction of a real event, mainly occasioned by the belief that the original picture had been lost.

(2) Frederick S. Voss, Reporting the War (1994)

Of all the thousands of news pictures published in the American press during World War II, none was better known, more celebrated, and more frequently reproduced than his Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of six battle-weary soldiers straining to raise the American flag on Iwo Jima's Mount Suribachi on February 23, 1945.

Brilliantly composed, this image possessed every element that a war photograph could want - a dramatic sense of action, sculptural clarity, and heroic patriotism. When the photograph arrived in the United States, it required but one glance on the part of editors to tell them that here was a picture worth featuring prominently.

Behind Rosenthal's picture is a story fraught with a number of ironies. To begin with, when Rosenthal looked back on his eleven days of recording the battle for Iwo Jima, it was not that image for which he had the greatest professional fondness. Rather it was one taken in the first hours of the invasion. Landing on the island's beaches hard on the heels of the first wave of marines, Rosenthal had found himself, like the armed men around him, dodging a stiff barrage of enemy fire. Seeking picture opportunities while remaining mindful of the need to find cover, he was darting from shell crater to shell crater when he spotted the bodies of two dead marines. In that moment, he conceived the idea for a photograph intended to evoke the essence of what he was witnessing. Thus, bringing the bodies of the two fallen men into his camera's focus, he waited for an advancing marine to come within view, and when one did, he took a picture that, in his estimation at least, embodied the "honest ingredients" of what the Iwo Jima story in its early phases was all about - the dead paving the way so that the living might follow.

Despite the forethought that went into that beach picture, the resulting image did not seemed contrived, which is probably one of the chief reasons why Rosenthal took special pride in it. On the other hand, his picture of the flag-raising on Mount Suribachi four days later - which, in its compositional perfection, did seem contrived and led to conjectures by some that it had to have been carefully posed.

(3) Michael Carlson, The Guardian (23rd August, 2006)

The raising of the American flag over Mt Surabachi, on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, is one of the world's great war photographs, and perhaps the most heroic image in American history. The picture, of five marines and a navy corpsman lifting the pole over a battle-scarred landscape, was taken by Joe Rosenthal, who has died aged 94, and who was a combat photographer only because he had been rejected by the army because his eyesight was so bad.

Cropped for dramatic effect from the original, more panoramic view, the image became an immediate sensation. Its dynamic thrust seemed to symbolise the inevitable victory in the Pacific for a war-tired nation.

It won Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, was used on recruiting posters and issued as a stamp, though US law prohibits images of living people on stamps. Three of the marines had been killed later in the fighting on Iwo Jima; the three survivors were brought back to America, feted as heroes, and used as the focus of an immensely successful war bond drive. They re-enacted the raising as part of the 1949 John Wayne film, Sands Of Iwo Jima, and their image became the model for the Marine Corps memorial at Arlington National Cemetery...

Rosenthal often had to face accusations that he had staged the photograph, but they arose from a misunderstanding. He had landed with the marines in the original assault on February 19 1945. On February 23, having captured Surabachi, a small volcanic hill and the highest point on the island, some marines raised a small flag at its summit. They were photographed by Sergeant Louis Lowery for the marine magazine, Leatherneck.

Rosenthal, having talked with Lowery, decided to get a shot of the flag himself. When he arrived, he found the marines raising a larger flag, attached to a pole so heavy it took six men to lever it into place in a small mound of rocks. He stepped just inside the volcano's crater and snapped the photo with his Speed Graphic. Rosenthal never claimed this was the original moment of combat, but the picture itself was neither posed nor staged. It did, however, mean Lowery's photo would be forgotten.