Historic Prints

Historic Prints of the PSA Print Collection:

Flag Raising on Iwo Jima  1945 by Joseph Rosenthal 


The story behind Joseph Rosenthal's Pulitzer Prize winning photograph, “Flag Raising on Iwo Jima” that is in the PSA collection is part of photographic history. On February 19, 1945, the Allies invaded the island of Iwo Jima, over six hundred miles off the coast of Japan, hoping to establish a staging area for bombers. Joseph Rosenthal, working for the Associated Press, landed amidst gunfire three hours after the invasion began. On the morning of February 23rd, Marines fought their way to the top of Mount Suribachi, raising the first of two American flags at 10:20am. Rosenthal and two other photographers were making their way up the mountain when the first flag was raised. By the time they reached the summit at 1:00pm, six soldiers were preparing to raise a second, larger flag. Rosenthal relates that he set down his bulky 4”x5” Speed Graphic in order to pile rocks and a sandbag to climb for a better view and almost missed the actual raising. “I thought of trying to get a shot of the two flags, one coming down, and the other going up, but I couldn't line it up, so I backed off about 35 feet. I decided on a lens setting between f-8 and f-11 and set the speed at 1-400th of a second. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the men start the flag up. I swung my camera up and shot the scene. When you take a picture like that, you don't come away saying you got a great shot, you just don't know.“

Contrary to a later rumor that he had staged the photograph, is filmed evidence of the raising made by Rosenthal's colleague Bill Genaust, a Marine photographer standing shoulder to shoulder to Rosenthal, recording the scene. Sending his film to Guam for development, Rosenthal never anticipated that AP photo editor John Bodkin would consider the resulting image, “one for all time” and radiophoto it to New York for mass distribution only seventeen and a half hours after it was made. The full composition was horizontal showing more of the landscape surrounding the soldiers and the flag, but it was cropped for greater emphasis on the soldiers. In an article that appeared in Colliers magazine recognizing the tenth anniversary of the flag raising, Rosenthal describing his composition said, “The sky was overcast, but just enough sunlight fell from almost directly overhead because it happened to be about noon, that it gave the figures a sculptural depth. The wind whipped the flag out over the heads of the group, and at their feet, the disrupted terrain and the broken stalks of the shrubbery exemplified the turbulence of war.”

It has been estimated that Rosenthal's classic war-time photograph may be the most widely reproduced photograph in American history. At the request of President Franklin D. Roosevelt It was printed on 3.5 million Treasury Department posters to publicize the 7th war-bond campaign. The photograph has been used on two U.S stamps and replicated as a commemorative statue at the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. The story of the men in the photograph who came from diverse American backgrounds influenced three major motion pictures: “Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), “The Outsider” (1962) and, “Flags of Our Fathers” (2006) all portraying an exact reenactment of Rosenthal's photograph. Only three of the six soldiers who raised the flag survived the battle on Mount Suribachi. Photographer Bill Genaust was also killed in the conflict.

Following the war, ‘Joe' Rosenthal became a staff photographer and later photo editor for The San Francisco Chronicle where he remained until his retirement in 1981.  He died in Novato, California in 2006 at the age of 94. There is no record of who donated, “Flag Raising on Iwo Jima” to the PSA. It is an unsigned, 20”x16” sepia toned silver gelatin print believed to have been made from the original negative.