Art

RIP: Edith Shain, 91, American Photography’s Most Famously Lip-Locked Nurse

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She was quietly one of New York City’s most famous icons worldwide, as she starred in one of the hottest, most romantic, and most legendary and seen snapshots in the history of American Photography, and ’round the world, several times over. Funny thing is, you probably have no idea who Edith Cullen Shain — who died last night at the age of 91 — is. But you’ve definitely seen her before.

Shain was the “kissing nurse” pictured in Alfred Eisenstaedt’s classic V-J Day photograph published in Life, taken in Times Square opn August 14, 1945, right below 45th Street where Broadway and Seventh Avenue merge, as she was kissed by an American Sailor celebrating the end of World War II. The caption, from Life:

In New York’s Times Square a white-clad girl clutches her purse and skirt as an uninhibited sailor plants his lips squarely on hers.

And how was it taken? Via Famous Pictures:

When news broke out of Japan’s surrender Alfred Eisenstaedt ran to Times Square taking pictures as he went. Suddenly he saw a sailor who was “‘running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make any difference. None of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then, suddenly in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse … Although I am 92, my brain is 30 years old.’ To prove it he recalled that to shoot that victory kiss he used 1/125 second exposure, aperture between 5.6 and 8 on Kodak Super Double X film.” Eisenstaedt snapped four shots of the kissing couple before moving on to get other pictures.

The precise identity of the sailor isn’t known, but Shain wrote into Life to identify herself as the nurse, who could also be seen from another (less famous) shot taken at that moment by a naval photographer named Lt. Victor Jorgenson. The letter she wrote:

Dear Mr, Eisenstaedt:

Now that I’m 60 – it’s fun to admit that I’m the nurse in your famous shot “of the amorous sailor celebrating V.E. Day by kissing a nurse on New York’s Broadway.”

The article in the Los Angles Times, which described your talents, stimiulated the recall of the scene on Broadway. I had left Doctors’ Hospitial and wanted to be part of the celebration but the amorous sailor and a subsequent soldier motivated [me] into the next opening of the subway.

I wish I could have stored that jubulation and amour for use P.R.N. [“P.R.N.” is a medical term meaning “as needed”]

Mr Eisenstaedt, is it possible for me to obtain a print of that picture? I would be most apprecitive. I regret not having meet you on your last trip to Beverly Hills.

Perhaps next time. If not – will understand because “it’s not only hard to catch him … its hard to keep up with him”

Have fun, Fondly,

Edith Shain

From then on, she had quite the life in her golden years, after being identified. Via MSNBC and Reuters, try not to tear up:

From then on, the photograph also made its mark on Shain’s life as the fame she garnered led to invites to war-related events such a wreath layings, parades, and other memorial events.

“My mom was always willing take on new challenges and caring for the World War II veterans energized her to take another chance to make a difference,” her son, Justin Decker, said in a statement.

Shain, who died at her home in Los Angeles on Sunday, leaves behind three sons, six grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

There’s plenty of of art and photojournalism and photographs created and made every day that don’t necessarily lend themselves to simplicity; this isn’t one of them. Everything you need to know is here. It’s two people, at their most human, seizing and celebrating a moment, the end of war, the end of fighting, and doing so in the most basic, yet extraordinary way they know how, and maybe the only real way to do so: falling spell to the otherworldly rapture experienced when showing someone else unbridled affection. And that’s what Edith Shain left us with.

[fkamer@villagevoice.com]