The Times Square Kiss:
Iconic Photography and Civic Renewal in U.S. Public Culture

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites

Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 122–32

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Two decades ago Thomas Bender called on historians to incorporate the many new forms of social explanation into an expanded conception of political history. Distinguishing such inquiry from consensus history and cautioning against a narrative hegemony, Bender proposed that the focal point for this work be “the making of a public culture.” That culture would be both the site where social groups contested for the power to define the nation, and the product of that dynamic, contingent process of public representation. By exploring how power is made manifest in, flows through, and assigns meaning to cultural phenomena, one could again fulfill “the social role of the historian, who seeks, as the novelist Henry James and the historian Henry Adams understood so well, to create the images of society that become ‘the mirror in which society looks at itself.’” 1

It seems that Bender was swimming against a very strong current, and we doubt there is much interest today in narrative synthesis on behalf of “our common life as a people and as a nation.” Likewise, “cultural studies” now references three decades of work in many disciplines on cultural phenomena as sites for domination, resistance, and negotiation. The concept of “public culture,” however, remains a vital idea that has just begun to be developed. By focusing on the public, it features a democratic understanding of the political that goes to the center of modern norms of legitimacy; by emphasizing culture, it features the media, arts, and other communicative practices that shape identity and agency throughout modern societies. As Bender wished, public culture is distinct from “mere social collectivities or cultural pastiches”; it also must include a stronger emphasis on public media than he imagined if the historian is to grasp how a democratic society works in practice.2

When Adams, Bender, and others speak of the images by which “society looks at itself,” they are likely to be using the terms metaphorically. But how does society see itself? Much of the time, by seeing. People form, maintain, and continually revise their conception of themselves as a people by looking at images in the public media. They look at presidents, big league hitters, hurricane victims, and voters; terrorists, soldiers, talking heads, pro- testers; firemen rescuing cats, kids sliding down water slides, immigrants waving flags on the Fourth of July, the homeless sleeping under bridges; the list goes on and on, changing every day and every day the same. These are the images of U.S. public culture.

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Figure 1. “Times Square Kiss,” Life, Aug. 27, 1945, p. 21.
Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Courtesy Getty Images.

Against this background of nonstop media production, some images acquire exceptional significance. The Statue of Liberty is one such icon, a symbolically and emotionally resonant image that is widely reproduced, widely recognized, and often appropriated for political, commercial, artistic, or social objectives. Other iconic images come directly from the leading public art of the twentieth century, photojournalism.3 They include a young woman screaming over a murdered student at Kent State University, marines raising the flag during the battle of Iwo Jima, and the Hindenburg airship exploding while landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey. They are not all “American faces,” but they are faces of America, part of an ongoing portrait of the traumas, challenges, and gambles of modern public life. In this essay we want to feature another iconic photo: that of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day. (See figure 1.) Although one cannot see the face of either the sailor or the nurse, it is a picture of personal intimacy in a public space, and it puts a face on the impromptu civic festival of that day and on the moment when World War II became history, a backdrop against which the nation would return from the struggle for life and liberty to the pursuit of happiness.

The photograph was taken by “the father of photojournalism,” Alfred Eisenstaedt. It is a good photo: one can observe classical symmetries, sharp contrasts of light and shadow, and powerful vectors of compression and expansion, as in the vibrant movement up the street into the space and light of Times Square. One also can sense the evocation of powerful symbolic forms: the romantic swoon ritualized in classical ballet, ballroom dancing, and Hollywood film, as well as the exciting social turbulence and semiotic excess of the carnival. Those artistic allusions work in concert with the norms of photojournalism: collective events are depicted via representative individuals; social actors are offered for view rather than directly confronting the viewer; private relationships are disclosed decorously within a public medium; there is no evident artistic manipulation of the image, which thus appears as a transparent window on reality. The photograph also draws on the dominant ideological structures of its time: women are acted upon, rather than acting; relations of class are masked by focusing on individuals; race is effaced as the world worth saving appears to be a white world. The image is also a visual incarnation of the most explicit tensions of the historical period, not least the contradiction between collective security and individual happiness. All of those tensions of citizenship are channeled artfully into a positive image of the public itself: the photograph celebrates not merely the end of the war, but the common people who won it. By standing in contrast to the images of war that preceded the final victory, the photograph signifies what both brought about and comes after victory. Thus, the image activates a narrative of what Life magazine’s publisher Henry Luce called the “American Century” in all its glory. No one blinks when it is the cover image for the Life retrospective, Life, Decades of the Twentieth Century: The Way We Were.4

That is one story, anyway. By focusing directly on the photograph, it becomes easy, too easy, to read it as merely a depiction of an official narrative of the American people. One can then assume that the public media are important, but only as technical virtuosity is put in the service of elites and their institutions to maintain public quiescence. One then settles for a concept of public culture that is but another name for conventional wisdom, hegemony, or other forms of collective delusion. A better understanding of icons, public arts, and public culture alike requires that one place the images in a history of production, circulation, and subsequent appropriation. The last stage, appropriation, is particularly important. As images are taken up, altered, or otherwise used persuasively by politicians, protesters, designers, artists, advertisers, journalists, and other people, and as they are displayed on billboards, T-shirts, murals, computer screens, and dozens of other surfaces, one can trace the making of public culture. That culture now is the place where people draw on common resources to affirm, contest, negotiate, understand, and legitimate a wide range of social practices and governmental policies. We hope to show how this works with something as simple as a kiss.

Eisenstaedt had been one of the original four photographers hired by Life magazine at its inception in 1936. In August 1945 he was on assignment for Life in Manhattan, and when the victory over Japan was announced on August 14, Eisenstaedt took to the streets to record the festivities later described in an article dubbed “Victory Celebrations.” Accompanying the article were fourteen photographs titled “The Men of War Kiss from Coast to Coast.” The only full-page photograph, which became an icon for the end of the war and the return to normalcy, is the one now known as the “Times Square Kiss.”5

It is not difficult to see why Eisenstaedt’s picture would be an attractive repository for collective memory of a national victory celebration. The act of kissing communicates joyfulness while implying even greater emotional release to come. The photograph places the two kissers in the middle distance we associate with public interaction, and the spectators in the picture bear witness to the event. The couple is doubly posed—against a tableau of a vital public space and as a passionate moment of romantic coupling. Indeed, they form the point of a V (like the wartime “V for Victory” symbol) that stretches out beyond them through the spectators (male on his side, female on hers) into the larger crowd.6 They are the focal point of the photograph, which channels the powerful energies of the collective celebration into the emotional intensities of the two bodies embracing. This fusion of public and private life is reflected further in their placement and gestures: the distance of the couple from the camera and the focus on their bodies rather than their faces (which are almost completely turned from the camera to each other) makes them relatively impersonal. Despite their obvious passion, each stops short of intimacy; he is kissing her intensely and she is bent far over in his powerful grasp, arcing up to him willingly while appearing to return the kiss, yet he is awkwardly holding back his left hand, which could be holding her head or breast, and she keeps her left arm well back, although she could have grabbed his head, back, or butt. They enact, without any explicit sense of irony, both the sexuality that is a primary obsession of private life and the decorum that is the necessary discipline of public life.

This last point bears special comment. Of the fourteen photographs contained in the “Victory Celebrations” layout, at least six clearly display men and women kissing in public. The remaining photographs record mob scenes that teeter between “good-natured letting off steam” and uncontrolled violence. With the exception of the “Times Square Kiss,” the “kissing” pictures depict lascivious or transgressive acts, and in doing so they place the tenuous balance between liberty and order at risk. In one photograph the woman’s legs are spread, ready to wrap themselves around a sailor’s waist, his right hand groping the back of her thigh as he pulls up her dress to reveal more than would have been modest in 1945. In another photograph a sailor cradles a woman in his arms. The caption identifies him as a “longing, determined sailor [who] grabs a willing light-o’-love and hoists her into position.” In perhaps the most telling of such photographs, a woman is held in the air in a prone position by several soldiers sitting on the top of a jeep. The woman has her back to the man directly beneath her who is reaching around and kissing her. The caption reads: “On Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles carousing servicemen neck atop the hood of a careening jeep. The city rocked with joy as impromptu pedestrian parades and motor cavalcades whirled along, hindered only by hurled whiskey bottles, amorous drunks and collisions.” What makes this last photograph so important is not just that it embodies the narrative of unrestrained sexuality and mob violence; in addition, it is the suture between the first half of the layout, which features the celebrants—the American people—as an undifferentiated mob, characterized in one caption as showing “no respect for history,” and the second half, which features the kissers. Only the “Times Square Kiss,” the last photograph in the series and the only full-page photograph in the layout, resists the narrative and its articulation, depicting a more contained return to social order. 7

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Figure 2. “Soldierís Farewell,” Life, April 19, 1943.
Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Courtesy Getty Images.

The tensions between liberty and order and between repression and release become more evident when the “Times Square Kiss” is compared to an earlier Eisenstaedt image of a man kissing a woman as he is about to depart for the war. Entitled “Soldier’s Farewell,” this photo on the Life cover for April 19, 1943, is a study in interdiction. (See figure 2.) The air must be chilly, as both figures are wearing topcoats; he also wears an officer’s hat and scarf while holding a raincoat over his arm. His uniform and her blouse and hair suggest that they may be affluent, and they are in any case dressed up for the occasion. And what an occasion: the background consists of a large, impersonal building, along with a single stranger looking on soberly, all in blurred focus. The contrasting sharp focus on the couple puts them into an intimate space, yet it also accentuates the folds produced by the bulkiness of their clothing. That clothing and much else stands between them, as their actions make clear. He is giving her a chaste peck on the side of her forehead, as one might kiss a child. His right arm may be around her waist, but we do not see it. We see the other arm held back, having to support the raincoat while holding a newspaper to his side. The paper in the foreground of the picture matches the building in the background: impersonal spaces and print media denominate policies, deployments, and obligations that take little regard of the individual soldier, much less those he loves. She matches his stance and his reserve; her right arm clutches her purse to her side, her averted face stares pensively into a distant space that must stand for an unknown future. She leans slightly toward him to offer her head for the kiss she does not return, but both are upright, selfcontained, already armored against the likelihood of irreparable loss. His thin wire-rim spectacles, which suggest both paternal reserve and vulnerability, are in no danger of being knocked off here.

Perhaps in the next moment they looked each other in the eye and came together in a rush of desperate passion, but it would be no part of the public record of this typical scene and the social types they represent (soldier and civilian, man and woman, lovers accepting their public duty). During war, Eros is under wraps, and individuals have to contain their emotions as a protection against greater pain later. Together for a last moment, the woman and man in the photo are already separated, restrained by self-protective mechanisms that may prove futile as the machinery of war pulls them still farther apart. The image captures the pathos of private life during a time of collective obligation. It functioned as both a realistic portrait of the emotional complexity many couples experienced and a model for conduct of public life generally. There should be little wonder that the end of the war unleashed suppressed passions or that an image would be found that reversed the war’s hierarchy of values.

The “Times Square Kiss” provides that reversal. The sailor and nurse probably come from lower- or lower middle-class backgrounds (given their respective rank and occupation), but that is not certain. What is certain is that they participate in the egalitarianism of the war effort, represented by their uniforms. And this common bond is the source of the picture’s drama. The sailor is exuberant because he has just been released from the probability of being killed or wounded in battle. The nurse has taken to the streets because she, too, wants to live without fear, separation, pain, and death. What is perhaps most significant is that the picture is from the home front, and that it is a picture of a heterosexual kiss. One would expect the end of the war to be most meaningful to those most likely to die the next day, not to a sailor in New York City (surely one of the best details in the war). One could imagine pictures of relief, of comradely play, or of former enemies joining hands, and many such photographs did appear. But only the “Times Square Kiss” foregrounds the tension between the war effort and the normal practices of everyday life. The war becomes enforced separation of the sexes, uniformed inhibition of the yearnings of private life, subordination of Eros to Thanatos. By contrast, as a poster sold in bookstores and casual decorating shops captions the image, the couple is “Kissing the War Goodbye.”8

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Figure 3. “Donít Ask,” New Yorker, June 17, 1996.
Illustration by Bill Blitt, © The New Yorker Collection 1996 from All Rights Reserved.

There is another factor. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner have remarked, “National heterosexuality is the mechanism by which a core national culture can be imagined as a sanitized space of sentimental feeling and immaculate behavior, a space of pure citizenship.” 9 The kiss icon exemplifies this mechanism in action: a man kissing a woman in the nation’s most famous town square to celebrate military victory is a perfect case of heteronormative citizenship. Many subsequent reproductions of the photo extend that cultural ideal across time and social space. But precisely because the image enacts “national heterosexuality” so directly, it can become an effective means for challenging and changing that ideal and, with it, a basic template of citizenship.

Perhaps the most famous appropriation of the kiss is the 1996 New Yorker cover illustration of two men in uniformed embrace. (See figure 3.)10 The particular inflection comes from both reproduction of the iconic template in a different context and variation on the composition itself. The shift is from one civic issue to another: from war and demobilization to the question whether gays should be allowed to exercise their civil rights. Those rights would include being allowed to serve openly in the military—one of the most basic dimensions of citizenship—but the cover does not specifically refer to any question of policy.11 It seems more likely that the appropriation is so striking because it directly challenges the very idea of citizenship being aligned with and therefore limited by sexual orientation.

This challenge is presented via a strategic masterstroke that simultaneously reproduces the social transgression at the heart of the gay rights debate and normalizes it. By showing what is otherwise unsaid in public debate—that some men in uniform kiss each other passionately—the cover creates a sense of scandal, but by showing how supposedly deviant behavior fits seamlessly into the public model of heterosexual normality, it challenges conventional beliefs. The image is at once strange and familiar, a scandal and what one should expect from sailors given a new lease on life, a breach of decorum and a model of how civic obligation and the individual pursuit of happiness can cohere seamlessly in an open society. Yet it is not a simple assertion, but a sophisticated illustration of the tensions in the public debate—not least the tension between individual desire and heteronormative conventions—and of the complexities of social change. Note the other element of the picture that has been altered: the spectators, instead of looking on and smiling, are averting their faces. The illustration highlights both a significant change in sexual mores and continuing discrepancies in social acceptance. Gay sailors can be model sailors, especially if allowed the same rights to self-expression that are granted to other sailors, but the public audience lags behind. This gap is mediated by the magazine itself and its artful use of the materials of public culture.

The New Yorker cover is part of a larger process of imitation that reflects continuing struggle over embodied citizenship, as well as the permeable boundaries of popular culture and private life. Each iconic photograph acquires a secondary narrative about its origin, authenticity, and influence; what is interesting about the “Times Square Kiss” photograph is that that narrative is a story of playacting. A central feature of the photograph is that we cannot see the faces of the two kissers and thus cannot identify them as specific individuals. They could be almost anyone who was of their age and stature at the time. That, of course, is part of the picture’s special allure, for what is important is not the individuality of the kissers but who and what they can represent. Even so, in August 1980 Life published an article that identified Edith Shain as the nurse, accompanied by a contemporary photograph of her, also taken by Eisenstaedt, and announced a call for the “real” sailor to come forward. Over ten sailors identified themselves as the kissing sailor, and two additional women claimed to be the nurse. Life has posted many of the replies on its Web site.12 In almost every instance the would-be kisser focused on some physical feature that allegedly was his or hers alone but that was too general to prove anything conclusive: “a 32-inch waist,” a hairline that “comes to a point at the temple,” “a bulging vein,” a slightly misplaced military insignia, “my usual left-handed kissing clutch.” What is most interesting about the accounts is that they often involve a verbal “wink,” which signals the potential inadequacy in the claimant’s evidence but acknowledges the fun in playing the game.

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Figure 4. “V-J Day Is Replayed,” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2005, p. B3.
Photograph by Mario Tama. Courtesy Getty Images.

This perhaps endearing stretch for emotional reenactment was taken back to the street when a temporary statue was unveiled in Times Square for the “first annual VJ Day ‘Kiss- In’” in August 2004 and again in 2005 for the sixtieth anniversary of V-J Day. The events were sponsored by the Times Square District Management Association. The statue looked like a large porcelain figurine, aesthetically connecting the event with the collectibles subculture, while Edith Shain became a fixture at the site and reenacted the famous clinch with one of the contenders for the identity of the sailor. For several days the site hosted a festive scene as thousands of people kissed, cheered, donned sailor caps, mugged for cameras, and otherwise re-created the original mix of private and public celebration. Plenty of photos were taken, a Web site created, and press coverage followed the event, often to display a wide range of life-styles. (See figure 4.)13 This carnivalesque copying of the iconic image may be the perfect blend of nostalgia and irony for a liberal-democratic public, most of whom were born well after the end of World War II.14

More important, these festive reenactments may be advancing a progressive redefinition of public culture. In the 1945 image, the public space is defined by traditional, exclusively heterosexual gender roles, with boys on one side and girls on the other, male domination of the acquiescent female, and so forth. The New Yorker cover provides a reversal, as the two men kissing represent a queer counterpublic that challenges its own exclusion while receiving perhaps grudging acceptance or some other combination of tolerance and denial that is mimed by the averted faces of the few others on the street. In the twentyfirst- century carnival, however, one sees all the old binaries neutralized by a parody reproduced in the public space. Instead of majority and minority status, one sees equal display and carefree association among straight and gay, young and old, lovers and strangers; even image (the statue) and reality (Edith) are put side by side, showing each to be a copy of the other. Note also that now the faces of the kissers can be seen. Whereas the anonymity of the original photograph heightened both an egalitarian ethos and social hegemony, the reenactors’ faces disrupt that hegemony on behalf of a more expansive, liberal-democratic public culture.15 The gathering is tied together by the stylistic flourishes of wearing sailor hats while striking variations of the iconic pose, but the obvious playacting and reduplication of the iconic image makes it clear that the older order is something to be taken up or set aside. The past becomes a style to be shared festively, while the public displays and sees itself anew in the present. Instead of the American century, we see a half century of progressive social change; instead of “mere social collectivities or cultural pastiches,” we see a public culture through its public arts, pluralistic and regenerative.

Robert Hariman is professor in the Department of Communication Studies, Northwestern University.

John Louis Lucaites is professor in the Department of Communication and Culture, Indiana University.

Readers may contact Hariman at r-hariman2 [at] northwestern [dot] edu and Lucaites at lucaites [at] indiana [dot] edu.

1 Thomas Bender, “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History,” Journal of American History, 73 (June 1986), 120–36, esp. 122. The mirror metaphor is quoted from Alfred Kazin. See also Nell Irvin Painter, “Bias and Synthesis in History,” ibid., 74 (June 1987), 109–12; Richard Wightman Fox, “Public Culture and the Problem of Synthesis,” ibid., 113–16; Roy Rosenzweig, “What Is the Matter with History?,” ibid., 117–22; and Thomas Bender, “Wholes and Parts: Continuing the Conversation,” ibid., 123–30.

2 Bender, “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History,” 131, 126.

3 Linda Zerilli, “Democracy and National Fantasy: Reflections on the Statue of Liberty,” in Cultural Studies and Political Theory, ed. Jodi Dean (Ithaca, 2000), 174. For examples of the many reproductions, see Statue of Liberty, dir. Ken Burns, Public Broadcasting System, 1985. Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy (Chicago, 2007).

4 For a biographical interview with Alfred Eisenstaedt, see John Loengard, Life: Photographers and What They Saw (Boston, 1998), 12–31. For a biographical sketch, see Life, Life Remembers Eisie: Over 50 Years of Putting Our Lives in Pictures, Aug. 24, 1995, There are four photo galleries of his work in the special issue on Eisenstaedt, “The Photojournalist of the Century,” Digital Journalist (Dec. 1999). The “Times Square Kiss” is the titular image for the first gallery, “Icons.” See The navy photographer Victor Jorgenson simultaneously took a very similar photograph from a slightly different angle. It has lived a shadow existence as the public-domain stand-in for the image made famous by Life. See Henry Luce, “The American Century,” Life, Feb. 17, 1941, pp. 61–65; Killian Jordan, ed., Life, Decades of the Twentieth Century: The Way We Were (New York, 1999).

5 “Victory Celebrations,” Life, Aug. 27, 1945, p. 21.

6 Gunther Kress and Theo van Leeuwen, Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design (New York, 2006), 124–29. Civilians had been encouraged to see Vs in everyday life as reminders of the war effort. “U.S. Camera and the British-American Ambulance Corps sponsored a contest . . . for photographs documenting that wherever the engaged eye looked it could find the ‘V’ form used to predict Allied victory. The entries, which captured V’s in the way a book opened and a tree branched . . . and in many other familiar objects, encouraged viewers to seek out this symbol in their own daily visual experience.” George H. Roeder Jr., The Censored War: American Visual Experience during World War Two (New Haven, 1993), 63.

7 “Victory Celebrations,” 21, 26, 25, 24.

8 This poster is available at numerous Web sites. We found it at

9 Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” Critical Inquiry, 24 (Winter 1998), 547–66.

10 New Yorker, June 17, 1996. For another variant of the gay sailors kissing, see the cover of Gary L. Lehring, Officially Gay: The Political Construction of the U.S. Military (Philadelphia, 2004). For other appropriations of this and other iconic photographs, see Hariman and Lucaites, No Caption Needed. Appropriations of the “Times Square Kiss” include advertisements for JC Penney, New York Life, Target, the Disney Store, and the History Book Club; a brochure by the Massachusetts Lesbian and Gay Bar Association; a commemorative stamp by the U.S. Postal Service; a speech by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; and reproductions on retail items including a poster, puzzle, e-card, camera bag, lunch box, and T-shirt.

11 As with many appropriations of iconic images, the connection with the accompanying verbal text is oblique. There is a reference in the issue to whether President Bill Clinton would sign a legislative act directed against gay marriage, but it is a minor remark with no textual or graphic connection to the cover. The more likely catalyst is that June is Gay Pride Month and the occasion for a parade down Fifth Avenue.

12 “Edith Shain Says She’s the V-J Day Nurse,” Life, Aug. (/1980). This story is posted with “The Smack Seen round the World, 1945,” “Would-Be Kissers 1995,” and “11 Sailors and 3 Nurses Say They’re the True Smoochers” at Life, V-J Day Kiss: Fifty Years Later [1995], Stories now appear periodically about contenders and continuing efforts at documentation.

13 “V-J Day in Times Square 61st Anniversary: A Call to Arms . . . and Lips!” [Aug. 2006?], Times Square Alliance, Edith Shain has played her role in other carnivals, including the 2005 West Hollywood Gay Pride Parade. A photo can be seen at Alan Pavlik, “Edith Shain. Who?” [2005], “Paparazzi Time: Minor Celebrities and Major Oddities,” Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images, New York Times, Aug. 15, 2005, p. B3. The photo accompanied Andrea Elliott, “V-J Day Is Replayed, but the Lip-Lock’s Tamer This Time,” ibid. The photo then became the image for the story “Our Own V-J Day,” Advocate, Sept. 27, 2005, It thus served as an artifact for public and counterpublic articulation. See Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York, 2002).

14 One reason to believe that the scene evokes a vital public culture is that it already is contested. For example, on The Daily Show with John Stewart, the commentator Lewis Black noted how “one of the most iconic image[s] of [the] era” has been “colorized” and “creepified” by being made into a statue in Times Square. Not only do “Americans love a good war”; they take special pleasure in romanticizing World War II as the “feel-good war of the century.” Black closed by noting that “no Times Square tourist is going to pose to have a picture taken with this sculpture,” displaying a figurine of Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib fame leaning forward and giving the thumbs up. “Back in Black,” The Daily Show with John Stewart, Comedy Central, Aug. 18, 2005.

15 On carnivalesque display and the disruption of hegemony, see John Louis Lucaites and James P. McDaniel, “Telescopic Mourning/Warring in the Global Village: Decomposing (Japanese) Authority Figures,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, 1 (no. 1, 2004), 22–24

Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites, “The Times Square Kiss: Iconic Photography and Civic Renewal in U.S. Public Culture,” Journal of American History, 94 (June 2007) 122–32.