Iwo Jima Flag Photo is NFT Art

David Hume Kennerly
4 min readMay 25, 2021

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Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Joe Rosenthal with his famous image in 2000 (by David Hume Kennerly)

Joe Rosenthal would have been 110 years old this year. A lot has happened since he died in 2006. Take NFTs for instance. What? You know, non-fungible tokens, those mysterious items that only hit our radar when one recently sold for a cool 69 million bucks. Yes, that was an attention grabber. I know it got mine, so stay tuned for the first Kennerly NFT in the next few weeks! But enough about that, let’s talk about Joe and his. (Joe might be the first person from “The Greatest Generation” to have his own NFT).

Joe took what I consider the best photo of all time. It shows U.S. Marines raising the American flag atop Mt. Suribachi during the battle for Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. There aren’t enough words to describe its greatness. It’s a picture that shows bravery under fire, perservearance, and the triumph of good over evil. All in one frame. It’s the only photo ever awarded a Pulitzer Prize the same year that it was taken. That’s how good it was then, and now.

To celebrate the 175th Anniversary of the Associated Press, AP will be releasing ten historic photos from their archives as NFTs. Joe’s incredible image, of course, is the first. I truly think he would love this, because it honors the Marines, and he always put their courage and sacrifice ahead of everything else.

This NFT has been brought to life by digital artist Marko Stanojevic, and I’m proud to say that the accompanying music titled, ‘Flag Rising,’ was composed and performed by my son Nick Kennerly. He said, ‘The music is both epic and sentimental all at once. I want it to allow the collector to feel not only the triumph of the moment, but also a feeling of grief and remembrance . . . I want that musical pulse to feel like the driving heartbeat of a soldier in the midst of battle.’ Joe knew and loved my three boys, Byron, Nick, and James. He gave each of them a signed copy of his famous picture. Nick had a real connection with him, and that informed his composition.

I was humbled to speak about Joe when he was honored after his death at the Marine’s Memorial Club in San Francisco.

A few excerpts from my eulogy:

“Joe’s photo of those valiant warriors raising the flag over Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima is a symbol for the ages and the standard to which we news photographers aspire. And he did it with just one click of the shutter. There was no second chance with that trusty Speed Graphic, no digital replay to see if he nailed it. That picture has challenged me at every step of my career, always right there whispering in my ear, ‘You can shoot for higher, for better.’

Joe always seemed uneasy with the fame that accompanied that glorious photograph and told me when I last saw him a week before he died that he, ‘just had a cup of coffee in the big show, while the rest of you stayed for the whole dinner.’

That, of course, is not true. Joe had a long and wonderful career as a news photographer and took plenty of other superb photographs. But overshadowing everything else was that one iconic tableau frozen in time, memorializing forever the gallantry and bravery of a few good men — those magnificent Marines fighting on that hill so far from civilization. Like Joe, their faces are obscured, the focal point being on the act, not the personalities. That is a rare phenomenon these days.

The image Joe created will ring through the ages and is enshrined in that rarified place alongside the work of Mozart, Rembrandt, and Hemingway. It is the Gettysburg Address of photography. That stunning moment captured the heart and soul of what it means to be a Marine and embodies the essence of Americans. His photo is the symbol of freedom, and the man who took it, a son of immigrants, represents us all.

On Joe Rosenthal’s wall in his spare San Francisco apartment was his most prized possession. It wasn’t, as you might imagine, a copy of his great photograph. No, it was much less prepossessing. Reading it, however, revealed a deeper understanding of his character and the deep reverence Joe felt for the Corps . . . hanging there, just above his favorite chair where he would sit for hours, was a certificate.

It read:

The Commandant of the Marine Corps

Takes pleasure in presenting the title

“Honorary Marine”

To Joe Rosenthal

“For unyielding devotion to Country and Corps”

12 April 1996

signed by C.C. Krulak

General, US Marine Corps

Commandant of the Marine Corps

Joe was a Marine, in thought, deed, and demeanor. His actions spoke for him, not his words. He was always faithful to his profession, and to the people he photographed. He devoted his life to them. And that photo hangs in the hearts of us all.”

The complete text of my remarks and tributes from two former combat veteran presidents, George H.W. Bush and Gerald R. Ford, who both served heroically in the Pacific during WWII, will be included in the NFT.

This modern-day rendering is just another example of the resilience of that moment, and whomever acquires it will get more than just a photo. They will possess the very soul of our nation. It is a sacred and unique item.

David Hume Kennerly

A link to the auction, which runs through this Friday, May 28th:

https://opensea.io/collection/ap175

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David Hume Kennerly

David Hume Kennerly won the Pulitzer Prize for his Vietnam photos, and was chief White House photog for Pres. Gerald Ford. His archive is at U of AZ’s CCP.