Victory. Love. Reckless abandon. These emotions are often associated with the image commonly titled “V-J Day in Times Square” or “The Kiss”. The image is a simple black-and-white photograph that was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt on August 14th, 1945. Though the image is filled with other people, one’s eyes immediately go to the couple at the center of the image, as their body position and tight embrace catch the attention of the viewer. While other people around them continue to move, they stand still, and the viewer can’t help but feel as though they are stealing a glimpse into a private moment. This icon may provoke different responses dependent on the viewer’s personal experiences.
From a more objective glance, the image captures stillness between the couple at the center while displaying the motion of those walking around them. The glances of those passing by the couple also help to redirect one’s gaze to the pair, and acts as a sort of frame to the primary action of the image. There is also a great deal of contrast displayed between the white dress of the nurse and the dark uniform of the sailor, which further emphasizes the shape of their bodies twisted together in an embrace. Robert Hariman and John Lous Lucaites touch on the significance of the composition of the image in their book No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. They write of the “synesthesia of public and private life” that is reflected in “the distance of the couple from the camera and the focus on their bodies rather than their faces” (p. 68). This creates an image that captures a collective feeling rather than a specific moment between two recognizable individuals, further contributing to the ability of viewers to place themselves within the photograph.
During my research, I will be using iconographic tracking as developed by Laurie Gries. In her article, she describes the procedure as “a method specifically designed to empirically account for how images flow, transform, and contribute to collective life” (337). As circulation is not linear, the methodology itself must allow for the analysis of the fluctuating functions and transformations of the image. She emphasizes the dangers of viewing digital icons as mediums of communication that “lack energy”, as it tends to lead one to “impose their interpretations” on an image (336). This greatly limits the study of the image as an entity that contributes to a larger digital sphere and begins to reflect personal biases instead of an objective and methodical approach.
Gries’ method works well for this project as it aims to show the way in which an image circulates and becomes rhetorical within time and space. Her work focuses on more than the meaning of an image as it stands on its own, but rather the way in which the image becomes a part of a larger rhetorical framework.
I chose Iconographic Tracking as my method due to its ability to highlight the ways in which an image changes context and significance as it is circulated and transformed. Iconographic tracking places the focus on the redistribution of an image and can show the comparison between different reiterations of the same original image. While the image of “The Kiss” depicts an important time in history, the cultural interpretation and commercialization of emotions has greatly overshadowed this, particularly in more recent uses of the image. This can be seen throughout the frequent re-use of the image for marketing purposes or for the sale of products such as mugs and earrings. Iconographic tracking allows for these new uses to be viewed in comparison with each other and showcases these alterations in usage from the original image.
I relied heavily on Google images, as it provided me with many alterations of the original icon. It also gave me the option to explore the shopping tab, which began to display a theme that I noticed throughout other search engines as well. This image has been used in products ranging from jewelry to mugs, and has been commercialized to represent an idealistic sense of love that sellers hope to use as means to appeal to a buyer’s emotional response. Furthermore, the image was frequently presented in a format that allowed the potential consumer to customize the item. This altered the icon to make it more personal and relatable, allowing individuals to insert themselves and their personal life into the photograph.
Along with the above ornament example, many other search results had to do with products that allowed the image to take on a more personal meaning. Search results included earrings, necklaces, mugs, cigarette cases, and t-shirts that used the photograph in its original form but on different products.
This image shows an ornament of the couple from Eisenstaedt's photograph, with an empty space underneath the figure where a name could be added for customization.
During my research, I had to decide if I would include images that copied the original instead of only cataloging the exact image. This allowed me to include photographs of couples copying the pose, as well as statues made in the image’s likeness. However, this did make my research broader in scope, as I began to include images that copied the intentions of the original as well as reiterations of the original. This allowed me to collect more data, but also shifted the focus from the original icon to the intentions and layout of the icon as well.
Along with the alteration of the image to include opportunities for personal ownership, redistribution of the image focused heavily on the emotional themes at the core of the icon. The original image has inspired contemporary artists to re-interpret the image, resulting in sculptures, murals, and tattoos.
Many people have used this photograph as an inspiration for their own photographic reenactment. I found a multitude of images of couples attempting to strike the same pose as the original pair. This goes to show the lasting importance of this image and the moment it captured years later.
In addition to the aforementioned themes, humor was shown to be a factor in the redistribution of this image. Many sites and media outlets used this image in a more contemporary or comical way, such as the LEGO version of the kiss and a comic in which the couple displays vastly different reactions than the original. As the original image is associated with a specific moment in history, many sites decided to add a more modern take to the image during re-circulation.
Created with an image by Markus Spiske - "untitled image"