NPR logo The Iwo Jima Photograph

The Iwo Jima Photograph

It's pretty amazing to think of the power of a photograph. It can stir emotions, cause fights, make you laugh or make you cry. Often they can induce flashbacks that stay with you forever. Some pictures will always make you smile. But there are those that give you shivers, knowing something ominous is just around the corner. The specter of an airplane heading towards a Manhattan building. Bobby Kennedy accepting the results of the 1968 Democratic presidential primary in California. And, to a lesser extent, Ken Rudin's face on the Mixed Signals blog.

And there are some that are steeped in controversy. I thought of that when I read about the passing last night of Joe Rosenthal. More than a half-century ago, Joe Rosenthal, a photographer with the Associated Press, took the now-famous shot of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising the flag at Iwo Jima in February of 1945. For the last 50-plus years of his life, Rosenthal was either admired for taking that picture, or castigated for being a fraud.

Joe Rosenthal is at peace now, but the controversy continues. To some, the photograph represents valor and courage, a symbol of what the American soldier used to be, at a time when war — at least that war — was considered a just cause. It won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize for Photography. But others saw it as staged, a con job, a picture too good to be true. To his dying breath, Rosenthal denied any chicanery and struggled to defend his honor and the sanctity of his immortal photograph. It's a shame that so much anguish had to accompany what should have been a celebration of Joe Rosenthal's magnificent accomplishment.