Astronomers solve mystery of ‘The Kiss’

Chuck Bednar for – @BednarChuck

Inspired by an article published by the New York Times in 2010, researchers from Iowa State and Texas State Universities have successfully dated Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square to V-J Day in 1945, according to a new study.

"the kiss"

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day In Times Square”. Also known as “The Kiss”. (Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Iowa State astronomer Steve Kawaler and his Texas colleague Donald Olson, whose findings were published in the August edition of Sky & Telescope, used analyzed the photos and used a number of other sources to determine that the kiss occurred at 5:51 p.m. on August 14.

Kawaler, a professor of physics and astronomy, contacted Olson, who has gained a reputation for his ability to use astronomical clues in photos and paintings to solve mysteries about the artwork, after reading the newspaper story and seeing readers speculate that a shadow on a building in the picture could be used to determine the exact moment when it was taken.

“I suppose that, knowing the exact location of the subjects and photographer, and the 1945 skyline around Times Square, one could pin it down pretty well,” Kawaler wrote to Olson. Three years later, when the Texas State physics professor was guest speaking in one of his colleague’s undergraduate seminars, the subject came up again.

The duo set out to learn as much as they could about Times Square in 1945, and started looking at old photographs, map and sun data. They also recruited Russell Doescher from the Texas State physics faculty for assistance, and ultimately, they determined when the photo was taken.

So how did they do it?

“The original photograph shows a shadow on the Loew’s State Theater building that was cast by the Hotel Astor which was across the street,” Kawaler explained to redOrbit via email. “A line drawn from the shadow to the part of the Hotel Astor that cast the shadow pointed back to the position of the sun at the moment of the photo.”

“So using a bit of astronomical calculations we know that the sun was at that position in the sky at 5:51pm,” the Iowa State professor said. “One or two minutes either way away from that time and the shadow would have been in a measurably different place on the Loew’s State Theater.”

"the kiss"

This is one of the old photos Iowa State’s Steve Kawaler studied to help determine the exact time of the famous V-J Day kiss photographed by Alfred Eisenstaedt. This photo shows the Times Square area (lower right) in 1927. (Photo courtesy of Steve Kawaler.)

“This amazing photograph has captured strong feelings from that day and transmitted them across time – and it still gives a clear sense of how moving and joyful that moment was, 70 years later,” he continued. “Knowing the precise time – just an hour or so before the official announcement of the end of the war – helps put it in context.”

It also reveals that George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer, the man and woman long believed to have been the people featured in the photo, could not have been the subjects after all. Mendonsa and Zimmer claimed that they locked lips around 2pm after hearing of the impending surrender of Japan, but their account of events does not hold up in the wake of the new analysis.

Kawaler said that it doesn’t matter who is shown in the picture. “The power of the photo transcends this,” he told redOrbit. “Now that the identity of the subjects is again ambiguous, it emphasizes the universality of the image.”


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