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Professor solves photo mystery, again


A recent discovery made by a group of physics professors has many people talking about Alfred Eisenstaedt’s iconic photograph, “V-J Day in Times Square.”

Steven Kawaler, Iowa State University astrophysicist, and Donald Olson and Russell Doescher, Texas State physics professors, conducted extensive research to determine the photo was taken at exactly 5:51 p.m.

Eisenstaedt, photographer for Life magazine, captured the famous photo of a couple celebrating after Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II.

Since the photo was taken, Olson said many people have stepped forward and claimed to be the kissing pair.

By uncovering the exact time the photo was taken, Kawaler said the researchers were able to disprove many of the accounts.

Kawaler said the research began after he witnessed the online debate surrounding a New York Times article in which Gloria Bullard, who claimed to have witnessed Edith Shain kissing an unknown male, said it took her two hours to get home after seeing the couple.

Based on her statements, Kawaler said it was determined the kiss must have happened before 7:03 p.m.

“We set out at the time not to argue or dispute that, but to figure out what time it was taken,” Kawaler said. “By finding out the same exact time we proved it couldn’t be those people, and therefore we don’t know who they were.”

In the 2012 book The Kissing Sailor, authors Lawrence Verria and George Galdorisi. analyzed the photo and claimed the time was closer to 2 p.m. Kawaler said more questions were raised after someone who had read the book pointed out a shadow hitting the nearby Loew’s Building in the photo.

“The sun isn’t in the picture,” Kawaler said. “But there was a shadow on the Loew Theatre building. The trick was to find out what was casting that shadow.”

Kawaler said researchers utilized maps and architectural drawings of the area during 1945 to determine the shadow was caused by Hotel Astor.

Olson said they used hundreds of photographs to familiarize themselves with the area.

Olson said the Bond Clothes clock, which is located on the right side of the photograph, indicated the time had to be 4:50, 5:50 or 6:50 p.m.

“I did the calculation using astronomy and the position of the sun, but trigonometry to figure out how the sun, the sign, and how the shadow aligned,” Olson said.

After five years of research, Olsen concluded the exact time was 5:51 p.m. To be sure his math was correct, Olson said he asked Doescher to make a model of Times Square to test his verdict.

“I was worried that I made a mistake,” Olson said. “Here I was disagreeing with the widely accepted theories, and my colleague Russell Doescher made a scale model that was 4 feet across.”

After the model was created, Olson said his next step was to recreate the shadow using a large mirror simulating the sun.

“When we arranged the sun, mirror and model, the sunlight was coming in just as it did at 5:51 p.m. and that’s when I said, ‘Russell, I can sleep better at night,’” Olson said.

Eisenstaedt’s photograph isn’t the first iconic piece Olson has decided to analyze. He said he has made multiple historic discoveries using astronomy, including when and where Vincent van Gogh painted “Moonrise” in 1889.

Olson said there are three criteria he considers before starting a project.

“We want it be easy enough to be solvable, and we want it to be interesting if we are able to do it successfully,” Olson said. “We study paintings by artists that people are interested in, such as Van Gogh, and when we do historical events we try to do events that people know about.”

Fabiola Tamez, communication and painting senior, said Olson uses his research as an example for students taking his class.

“He would show us how he would overlay the shadows and how he would simulate it,” Tamez said. “I think the class really liked that.”

The identity of the kissers still remains a mystery, but Kawaler said knowing the exact time will help to narrow down the possibilities.

“It would be nice to know, but in another sense it is kind of a good thing because this photograph is more than just a picture of two people,” Kawaler said. “It is really a work of art that captures how jubilant people felt at the end of the second World War.”