Flags of Our Fathers: What You Need to Know about the Famous Photo

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for photography and one of the most-reproduced images in the history of photography, Joe Rosenthals picture has inspired postage stamps, posters, the covers of countless magazines and newspapers, and even the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.

Like the surviving men in his picture, Rosenthal became a celebrity. Initially classified 4-F by the Selective Service (and thus not eligible for military duty) because of poor eyesight, Rosenthal was reclassified 2-AF (essential deferment) because–according to a Time magazine article from the time–the picture entitled him to a classification better than 4-F.

Still, there was some controversy. A few days after the now-famous photo hit the front pages of newspapers across the country, a reporter asked Rosenthal if he had staged the shot. Rosenthal, thinking that the reporter was referring to a different, obviously posed picture of Marines cheering with the flag, said, Sure. The fact that the picture chronicles the second flag-raising of the day also added to the confusion, and for the next fifty years, Rosenthal was accused of manufacturing an image that hed seen earlier.

To help handle requests for interviews and appearances, the AP set up a Rosenthal desk. Rosenthal met President Truman, received a bonus of a years salary in War Bonds from the AP, and won the Pulitzer Prize.

Rosenthal died in August 2006 at the age of 94. In an obituary in the New York Times, Richard Goldstein praised the photographers most famous work, writing, The triumphant portrait, representing the first seizure by American troops of territory governed as part of the Japanese homeland, struck a tremendous emotional chord on the home front and resonated deeply as a symbol of the diversity in American life.

For Rosenthal, it was clear who the heroes were. In the Colliers article, he commented, Of all the elements that went into the making of this picture, the part I played was the least important. To get that flag up there, Americas fighting men had to die on that island and on other islands and off the shores and in the air. What difference does it make who took the picture I took it, but the Marines took Iwo Jima.