Loading

The Commercialization of Emotions: An Iconographic Tracking Report By Katherine Mavridou-Hernandez

BACKGROUND

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.

A closer look at the photograph

In this photo, pedestrians watch as a sailor passionately kisses a uniformed nurse in the center of a crowded Times Square to celebrate the end of the war.

I don’t quite recall the first time I saw this icon, but I vaguely remember my teacher presenting it to our high school history class. I remember the murmurs from my classmates who reacted with a mix of intrigue and confusion. We all immediately wondered what had happened to the couple in the image. Had they stayed together? Did they know each other?

Turns out, they did not know each other. The subjects at the center of the photograph were total strangers, and the moment captured on film depicts a spontaneous gesture with no previous forethought. Photographer Alfred Eisentaedt can be credited with capturing this moment that seemed to encapsulate the joy felt by everyone at the end of the war. A photographer for Life magazine, Eisenstaedt watched as a uniformed sailor made his way through the crowd, kissing many women as he went, before focusing on the women wearing all white and waiting for them to embrace. The main subjects at the center of the image are George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman. Friedman, a 21-year-old dental assistant, was out in Times Square when news of the war’s end broke out. Mendonsa, never having met Friedman, grabbed and kissed her on the spot. She later commented that the kiss “wasn’t a romantic event”, and that it “was just someone celebrating”. A bit anti-climactic, I know.

At the time of the photograph’s release to the public, kissing on V-J day was described as a sort of “national currency”, and those who were also in Times Square that day recall events like the one captured in the image as a huge part of the day. In fact, it is reported that Eisenstaedt himself was smooching someone that same day.

In this image, a crowd of Toledoans cheer and hold up a newspaper announcing the surrender of Japan on August 14th, 1945. (Toledo Times/The Blade)

The photo most recently resurfaced following the death of George Mendonsa. Today, the image has reached icon status, inspiring more contemporary adaptations of the original image in the form of Halloween costumes and replicas of the pose in modern pictures. It has also faced scrutiny in the face of recent movements that highlight unwanted sexual misconduct, as Friedman’s account of the day emphasizes the way in which she was grabbed without prior consent by Mendonsa. This more recent re-imagining of the image drastically alters the context in which it was initially perceived by audiences and introduces a narrative that is different to the commonly held conception surrounding the photograph. This further demonstrates that the image stands alone, apart from what the historical and cultural context within it was initially imagined, and functions on its own.

It is interesting to analyze an icon that tells a real story and captured a real moment in time. Consider the ways in which the interpretation of this image has changed over time and with access to background information. Is the same fascination still present once you are aware of the woman’s lackluster experience? How do our expectations and our hopes reshape the images we see and add context? Ansel Adams once said that “you don’t take a photograph. You make it”. I think this applies to all images. Once it is viewed, it takes on a new life and is changed by the viewer and their unique interpretation.

My project focuses on the ways in which these unique interpretations further the commercialization of emotions. While the image is often associated with the end of the war, it does little to showcase any of the suffering or horrors of the war, and instead glamorizes victory. The historical context of the image pails in comparison to the emotional power of the image and is thus overshadowed.

METHODOLOGY

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.

As the image persists through a changing social context, its popularity and ethical implications are questioned by a society that seeks to re-evaluate the complacency with which sexual harassment has often been glossed over in favor of pre-determined ideals of romance. The image was re-circulated in 2005 in the form of a 25-foot-tall statue by artist Seward Johnson. The installation, titled “Unconditional Surrender”, was erected in Sarasota as a tourist attraction near the bay front. Many couples travel to take pictures underneath the statue and memorialize their kiss under the one that has become so iconic. However, everyone does not share this view of the statue. In February of 2019, the police were called to respond to a report of someone spray-painting the statue. When they arrived, the person had left but “#MeToo” had been spray-painted on the side of the statue. This is a clear illustration of the ways in which an image is constantly being re-defined under re-circulation. The image of “The Kiss” is part of a larger rhetorical framework that is constantly under the evaluation of an ever-changing societal context.

In this photograph, a couple mirrors the pose of the couple in Eisenstaedt's photograph and kisses underneath the "Unconditional Surrender" statue in Sarasota, Florida.

One of the first steps of this process requires a macro-scaled approach to data collection. This should be done using basic search engines. In my case, I started with Google’s image search. After gathering a vast majority of data, I began to organize the data into a collection based on patterns and relationships using tags in Zotero. After these initial images were cataloged into Zotero, I followed Gries’ "meso-scaled" approach to expand my data collection. In addition to searching through well known search engines, I expanded my search to other platforms such as social media and image sites. The final step in this process was to conduct a micro-scale investigation in which all of the data was examined in order to determine patterns or relationships between the data and construct a conclusion as to the ways in which the initial purpose and message behind the image had changed through circulation.

Gries argues that one should pay close attention to any subtle changes from the original image: “Transformation is studied by paying attention to how a circulating image changes in terms of design, form, medium, materiality, genre, and function” (343). This methodology allows for a detailed study of the impact of circulation and the purpose behind these alterations.

RESEARCH

My research was inspired by a desire to focus on the ways in which the emotional undertones present in the original image have been emphasized and have come to overshadow the original historical context. The embrace displayed in the image is one that many audiences have come to associate with passion and love, and this narrative often overshadows the truth behind the experience of the two main subjects in the image. The use of an iconographic tracking report helps to highlight the ways in which the emotional undertones of the photograph have been used in a commercial sense to further perpetuate the idea of idealized love.

During my data collection, I found that my image was only consistently trackable under certain key terms: “V-J Day Kiss” and “V-J Day Times Square Kiss”. Anything less specific yielded results that encompassed different themes (such as Valentines Day with “V Day” and New Years Eve with “Times Square Kiss”).

I began by locating my original image using Google Images. From there, it was easy to click through the suggested categories generated by Google, such as “art”, “color”, or “statue”.

This photo is a screenshot of my Google image search results, displaying various renditions of the V-J Day Kiss photograph.

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.

In this collage, different renditions of "The Kiss" photograph are shown in the form of a cigarette packet, a necklace pendant, and a tattoo.

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.

This image is a screenshot of a tweet showing a video of a re-enactment of the V-J Day Times Square kiss during the New York City Veterans Day parade in 2018.

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.

These two images show comedic interpretations of the original photograph, one in the form of a MAD comic and one a re-enactment of the kiss using Lego characters.

Prior to my research, I recognized the historical and emotional significance of this icon. The photograph triggers an emotional response in the viewer and remains an example of reckless and unfiltered love to this day. This can be seen in the ways that it has been circulated through various digital spaces. Many companies and artists have used this image as inspiration for their works, with many placing the image on items in order to trigger consumers to feel an emotional response to their products. In addition, many have used new technology to allow consumers to personalize the product so that they can place themselves within the icon. This personal connection to the icon is also shown by the numerous photographic replications by couples today. As with most images that are in a specific historical time period, circulation has caused the image to be altered to encompass contemporary culture.

It is evident that the re-circulation has separated the image from its original historical context. Instead, the emotions often associated with the image allow for distributors to capitalize on this depiction of love. The re circulation trends show the way in which the original history behind the image has been erased in order to allow for more personal narratives to place themselves within the icon. In essence, the iconographic tracking report shows the ways in which the image plays to a larger rhetorical framework focused on the commercialization of emotions.

Why does this image matter? Why does it continue to play an active role in digital spaces 74 years later? The image itself does not seek definition, but viewers have been redefining it and their personal connection to it through constant re-circulation. The couple in the image represent a moment in time, but viewers of it have decided to focus on the emotional undertones present in an effort to immortalize the depiction of the couple. The uniforms, date, and location present in the photograph are nothing in comparison to the sentimental value attributed to the image. This demonstrates the ways in which re-circulation can contribute to a disconnect from the original context of an icon. While the photograph captures a moment with great historical significance, this significance has been overshadowed in favor of the commercialization of the emotions present within the image.

SOURCES

Gajanan, Mahita. “The Story Behind the WWII V-J Day Kiss Photo.” Time, Time, 11 Sept. 2016, time.com/4486812/wwii-kiss-photo-vj-day/.

Gries, Laurie E. “Iconographic Tracking: A Digital Research Method for Visual Rhetoric and Circulation Studies.” Computers and Composition, 30, 2013, p. 332-348. Elsevier.

Griffith, Janelle. “Statue based on famous WWII ‘kissing sailor’ photo spray-painted with ‘#MeToo’”. NBC News. Feb. 19. 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/statue-based-famous-wwii-kissing-sailor-photo-spray-painted-metoo-n973151

Hariman, Robert, and John L. Lucaites. No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007. Print.

IMAGES (in order):

Eisenstaedt, Alfred. "V-J Day in Times Square". 1945. Photograph. https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2014/03/14/290273003/man-widely-known-as-the-kissing-sailor-in-1945-v-j-day-photo-dies

Toledo Times/The Blade. 1945. Photograph. https://www.toledoblade.com/memories/2015/08/10/Celebration-as-war-ends/stories/

Enzozo. "Footprint in Digital Background/ A concept of Digital Footprint". 2018. Stock Illustration. https://www.shutterstock.com/g/enzozo/sets/12245409

Herald-Tribune. 2015. Photograph. https://www.heraldtribune.com/news/20160913/anderson-iconic-kiss-may-not-be-something-to-celebrate

Adornments NY. "The Kiss Personalized Christmas Ornament". Ornament. 2018. https://www.etsy.com/listing/489723623/the-kiss-personalized-christmas-ornament?gpla=1&gao=1&&utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=shopping_us_christmas_Home_and_Living&utm_custom1=6722271b-9135-420e-b095-e02862fde7e7&utm_content=go_1707294370_69268674649_331635229806_pla-303628061699_c__489723623&gclid=CjwKCAjw5_DsBRBPEiwAIEDRWyO_U1Jk65QITuXEB1DOowN3CXBLBU8uXAS8Ci5kOWiOKwh4npVLlxoCCkoQAvD_BwE

Hui Chuan Store. "Personalized Customized VJ DAY KISS Nurse and Sailor World War 2 Cigarette Case Pocket Aluminum Alloy Slide Cigarette Box Smoke". Cigarette Case. n.d. https://www.aliexpress.com/item/32921835641.html

Bearded Kraken Crafts. "Sailor kissing nurse Necklace sailor kissing nurse Pendant VJ day, Time square, New york, WW2, Antique Silver Antique Bronze". Necklace pendant. https://www.etsy.com/nz/market/ww2_necklace

James, Matthew. "Times Square Kiss". Tattoo. https://tattoo-ideas.com/times-square/

Williams, Richard. "V-J Day Kiss". Comic. 1999. https://www.madmagazine.com/blog/2015/08/14/mad-celebrates-70th-anniversary-of-the-v-j-day-kiss

A Berggren Photography. "The Kiss Lego". Digital Print. https://www.etsy.com/listing/207297906/the-kiss-lego?ga_order=most_relevant&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery&ga_search_query=vj+day+kiss&ref=sr_gallery-1-29

Credits:

Created with an image by Markus Spiske - "untitled image"