Who was kissing in the famous VJ Day picture?

We are approaching the 70th anniversary of VJ Day (August 14, 1945), which marked the end of World War II. And perhaps the iconic photograph of that day is the picture of two anonymous strangers kissing in New York City’s Times Square celebrating the end of the war.

This iconic image first appeared on page 27 of the August 27, 1945, issue of Life magazine. The shadow on the façade of the Loew’s Building, at the upper right above the Bond Clothes clock, allows us to determine that Alfred Eisenstaedt took this photograph at 5:51 p.m. (Alfred Eisenstaedt / LIFE © Time Inc. Used with permission) Photo: Medina, Mariah, Texas State University, University News Service

And a question that is still unresolved after 70 years is: Who are they?

The short answer is, Nobody knows for certain. But in a clever bit of geometric and astronomical forensics, physicists at Texas State University (Donald Olson and Russell Doescher) and Iowa State University (Steven D. Kawaler) recently pinpointed the exact time that the photograph was taken: 5:51 pm, or about an hour before President Truman formally announced that the war was over. From the press release:

Overlooked in the right hand background of the photo is the Bond Clothes clock.  The minute hand of this clock is clear, but the oblique angle of view and the clock’s unusually short hour hand makes a definitive reading of the time difficult.  The clock might show a time near 4:50, 5:50, or 6:50 p.m.  A prominent shadow falls across the Loew’s Building just beyond the clock, however, and this shadow could potentially give just as accurate a time reading as the clock.

Every tall building in Manhattan acts as a sundial, its cast shadow moving predictably as the sun traverses the sky. In this case, the Texas State team studied hundreds of photographs and maps from the 1940s to identify the source of the shadow, considering, in turn, the Paramount Building, the Hotel Lincoln and the Times Building. The breakthrough came when a photograph of the Astor Hotel revealed a large sign shaped like an inverted L that advertised the Astor Roof garden.

Calculations showed that only the Astor Roof sign could have cast the shadow, but to be certain, Olson and Doescher built a scale model of the Times Square buildings with a mirror to project the sun’s rays. The location, size and shape of the shadow on the model exactly matched the shadow in Eisenstaedt’s kiss photographs.

So who are the kissers? Again from the press release:

Over the years, dozens of men and women have come forward claiming to be the persons in the photograph. All have different stories, but the one thing they share in common is kissing a stranger in Times Square that fateful day.

“All those people have said they were there and identify themselves in the photograph,” Olson said. “Who’s telling the truth? They all could be telling the truth about kissing someone. They were probably all there, and kisses were common in Times Square on VJ Day.

“I can tell you some things about the picture, and I can rule some people out based on the time of day,” he said. “We can show that some of the accounts are entirely inconsistent with the astronomical evidence”…

“Astronomy alone can’t positively identify the participants, but we can tell you the precise moment of the photograph,” Olson said. “Some of the accounts are inconsistent with the astronomical evidence, and we can rule people out based on the position of the sun. The shadows were the key to unlocking some of the secrets of the iconic VJ Day images–we know when the famous kiss happened, and that gives us some idea of who might or might not have been in the picture.”

From a news report:

“There are probably 50 or 60 sailors who have come forward and say, ‘That’s me! I’m the guy in the photograph.’ Fewer women, maybe five or six women, have said they’re the woman in white. There are articles all over the internet advocating for one [or] the other,” Olson said.

Olson can’t say who is correct, but he can rule out a few.

“What we can do is calculate the precise time, 5:51 p.m., when the photograph was taken. That does appear to rule out some of the widely accepted candidates,” he said.

The full article has been published in the August 2015 issue of Sky and Telescope magazine (sorry, you’ll have to buy a copy in you want to read the article). I also recommend clicking through the photographs in the press release; the captions of the photographs give many details of how the time of 5:51 pm was pinpointed.

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