Photographs were one of the American public’s most powerful sources of information about the progress of World War II from the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, until the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. Photojournalists and military combat photographers covered every campaign, and photographs from the front were published weekly in illustrated news magazines such as LIFE, Look, Time, and Newsweek, reaching millions of homes. It was the United States government and not the magazines, however, that determined which pictures the public could see and what text could be printed about them. In the interest of maintaining public morale and promoting the national war effort, government censors reviewed all photographs relating to the war and decided whether and when a picture could be published. They retouched images to hide military secrets or potentially demoralizing details like the features of a dead GI, and rewrote captions to ensure that the picture evoked the appropriate response. Like the stories the public read in the newspapers or heard on the radio, every war photograph published had passed the censor, and every caption reflected the censor's language.
This kit, based on a past exhibition at George Eastman House, features photographs that were selected from the Museum's collection of original 8" by 10" wartime prints made for issue to the press, and large prints made shortly after the end of the war for exhibitions celebrating America's victory. Most of the pictures were taken by military photographers who served with combat units of all the armed forces. A few were taken by accredited photojournalists — civilian photographers associated with one of the magazines or news agencies — whom the military permitted to accompany troops into combat. Far fewer in number than the military combat photographers, the photojournalists often took equal risks in making their pictures — some of which are among the most memorable photographs of the war. Combat pictures made by military personnel were often released without crediting the photographer, while civilian photojournalists sometimes became celebrities because of their images.
The labels in this kit identify the photographer whenever possible. In the case of military photographers, their branch of service is indicated by the following standard abbreviations
The label texts quote the pictures' original captions. We have not altered the language of these captions, even though the racial terms used in some of them are unquestionably offensive. Racism fueled the conduct of World War II on all sides, and the names Americans commonly used for the enemy were often derogatory, especially in reference to the Japanese. Even though we deplore these terms, it is necessary to repeat the original words the censors wrote for these pictures to recapture the impact they had on the American public during the war. It is also important to note that the pictures in this kit do not equitably document the experience of all American servicemen. Like our society itself, during World War II the armed forces of the United States were largely segregated, and in keeping with prevailing attitudes of the time, the contributions and sacrifices of African-American soldiers, marines, seamen, and airmen were consistently minimized by the censors and in the press. Even though these men played a vital role in the war effort, there are very few pictures of African Americans among all the photographs from World War II, even fewer that do not reflect then-common stereotypes, and almost none that show them in a combat situation.
Photographs in and of themselves cannot accurately record history. Often, however, they become icons — single images that summarize an event so powerfully that they become lasting symbols of that experience. World War II produced many such icons. These pictures resonate powerfully even today, so when we look at them we may need to remind ourselves that even the most heroic of these photographs are documents of the greatest catastrophe mankind has ever inflicted upon itself.
William F. Stapp Senior Curator, 19th & 20th Century Photography