Kissing for Posterity

A couple of years ago when I was really just starting out in street photography I took a late night picture of a couple kissing on Hungerford Bridge, London against the backdrop of the Royal Festival Hall. Possibly a good-night kiss. Maybe the promise of something more. We are left to make our own stories. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them. They didn’t know I was there. I suspect they didn’t know anyone was there, though the bridge was bustling. 

I still like the picture. I like the light. Of course, what is missing is any sense of historic occasion.

Night Then...

Night Then...

Last week we learned of the death of Greta Friedman. Despite her name being almost unknown, Greta's image has become one of the defining photographs of the Second World War for she was the woman in white being kissed by a sailor in Times Square as the end of the war in Japan was announced. Eisenstaedt's photo became one of the half dozen or so pictures that will always be associated with the conflict - Capa's Omaha Beach shots; Joe Rosenthal’s GI's hoisting the Stars and Stripes over Iwo Jima; St Paul's cathedral standing proud amidst the smoke and flame of the Blitz in December 1940... 

I had always believed that the white uniform was that of a nurse who would soon be free to pursue her normal peacetime calling rather than tending the wounded of the war. However, it turns out Greta was a dental nurse on her break when she came across the sailor in Time Square. The sailor, called Mendoza, had apparently been kissing random women in Times Square as he celebrated the end of hostilities. Try doing that these days.

The presence of a great photographer to capture the moment the sailor met the woman in a white dress sealed both Mendosa and Friedman in time for posterity. 

Fifteen years on from 9/11 many of the major photography players have been using their Instagram feeds to bring us images of the day. The images bring us the immediacy and horror in a way that only a photograph can - a moment captured and frozen, pored over and analysed at will by whoever wants to see it. 

Part of the power in these images is the technical beauty of the photograph, shot by a master photographer; a beauty which is in sharp contrast to the horror of the unfolding disaster. It's that juxtaposition that creates such impact. Of course, the impact is heightened when it is somewhere that we associate with high tech, comfortable, first world living - like New York. Would the impact be the same with an image of smoke and debris in Aleppo, or anywhere else without a Starbucks, MacDonalds or Nike outlet, I wonder.

It strikes me that it is the very ordinariness of the people in the images that brings the whole story to life. Alex Webb's shot of the woman and her baby on their rooftop against the backdrop of the burning towers and Eisenstaedt's image of Friedman in Mendosa's embrace both bring the disaster down to a personal level involving people with whom we can readily empathise. It is this capacity to hint at our own individual narratives that makes street photography so compelling.

Great Friedman was 92 when she passed away. Beyond that moment, 71 years ago, the world knows little of her life.