For the first time, we can see one of the most iconic photographs
from World War II as an authentic sterescopic image.

Tampa, Florida

Originally published in a different form in The Tampa Tribune (2005).

  After four days of staggering losses in their mission to capture the Japanese-held island of Iwo Jima, U.S. troops were in desperate need of a morale boost.

  It came about 10:30 a.m. Friday, Feb. 23, 1945, in the form of a small flag affixed to a heavy iron pipe.

  Sgt. Lou Lowery, a photographer for Leatherneck magazine, documented the scene as a half-dozen fellow Marines raised their improvised flagpole at the rubble-strewn summit of Mount Suribachi.

  It was the first time a U.S. flag had flown over Japanese territory.

  Lowery captured the historic flag-raising in a series of black-and-white photographs. Moments later he was tumbling down the side of the mountain to avoid a Japanese grenade attack. Although his camera was smashed, Lowery — and his film — survived.

  But Lowery’s photographs, like the dramatic event he had documented, were forever overshadowed by the iconic image of a second flag-raising two hours later.

  As Lowery descended Suribachi, hoping to find another camera, he encountered other photographers on their way up the rugged slope. Among them were Marine cinematographer Sgt. Bill Genaust and still photographer Joe Rosenthal of The Associated Press.

  “I didn’t have any thought that there would be a second flag-raising,” Rosenthal recalled. “Didn’t know it until I got to the top.”

  Detractors have claimed that Rosenthal orchestrated the second flag-raising and that his celebrated photograph had been posed. In their 1995 book, “Shadow of Suribachi,” historians Parker Albee Jr. and Keller Cushing Freeman dismantled those charges.

  Soon after the first flag was raised, Albee and Freeman wrote, commanders decided it should be replaced with a much larger battle flag, one that could be seen more easily by fighting men across the island and from ships offshore. The first flag was to be lowered as the larger flag was raised.

  Genaust and Rosenthal stood side-by-side atop the windswept mountain at an arm’s length from each other. Out of the corner of his eye, Rosenthal noticed the second flag being readied, and he and Genaust quickly swung their cameras up.

  Rosenthal’s camera allowed him to capture one image during the flag-raising; Genaust’s film footage shows it to have been a spontaneous event — not a contrived or practiced pose. Five Marines and a Navy corpsman lifted the metal flagpole in a quick, fluid movement.

  A single frame from Genaust’s film freezes the action at precisely the same split-second as Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

  The striking similarity of those two images has been noted by a number of World War II historians. An intriguing photographic prospect had gone unexplored for six decades, however.

  By juxtaposing Rosenthal’s photograph with the matching frame from Genaust’s film, it is possible to produce an authentic 3-D image of the Iwo Jima flag-raising. For the first time, we can see one of the most iconic moments in U.S. military history with a real sense of depth and spatial relationships.

  The 3-D effects are not the result of digital manipulation or computer trickery. They are based on the same photographic techniques that have been used to produce stereoscopic imagery for more than a century.

  A 3-D photograph allows the viewer to see a single image from two slightly different viewpoints, mimicking the natural separation of human eyes.

  When two nearly identical images are directed independently to a viewer’s eyes, the brain combines the resulting visual signals to produce a single merged image. The separation of viewpoints results in a natural stereoscopic effect.

  The most common example of this 3-D process is the View-Master, a toy that sends slightly different images to the viewer’s eyes through two separate lenses.

  The images accompanying this article provide two different ways to see the flag-raising photographs as a single three-dimensional image. If you have access to a standard pair of 3-D glasses with red and blue lenses, you can view a red-blue stereoscopic version of the image at the top of this page. Or, to view the 3-D effect in an unassisted manner, follow the step-by-step instructions provided with the paired black-and-white photographs, below.

  These unique stereoscopic images were produced with the technical assistance of Boris Starosta, an expert in the field of 3-D photography. Seeing the assembled photographs for the first time, Starosta was surprised by the realistic depth of the 3-D image. “In the tiny subgenre of ‘found’ or accidental stereos,” he wrote, “this one has got to be the most interesting one I’ve ever seen or even heard of.”

  “You’ve got quite a find on your hands.”

  Author and historian Albee supplied the appropriate frame from Genaust’s film — seen on the left, below. Rosenthal’s photograph, on the right, is from the archives of The Associated Press.

  Albee notes that the three-dimensional image is more than a simple curiosity. “3-D enables us to view with greater clarity this historic moment.

  “When the Marines’ first effort was made to identify the men in the photograph, only the names of five men were sought — the hands of a sixth man not being readily apparent,” Albee said. “3-D, however, allows the viewer to quickly detect the presence of that sixth man.”


All three-dimensional images consist of two slightly different views of the same scene, one for each eye. By directing these images separately and simultaneously into each eye, the viewer’s brain is tricked into seeing a single fused image that produces a sense of stereoscopic depth.

Through a process known as free-viewing, many people are able to observe this sense of depth without the aid of 3-D glasses or viewers.


  1) The paired black-and-white photographs, above, are positioned in a cross-eyed format. That means the image on the left is for your right eye and the image on the right is for your left eye. To prepare for free-viewing of the 3-D effect, look at the paired photographs in a natural, relaxed manner from a comfortable distance — at an arm’s length or slightly farther.

  2) Gradually cross your eyes until the pair of images doubles to four. They will appear to be somewhat out of focus. (If you have trouble, try holding your index finger halfway between your eyes and the screen. Focus on your fingertip and you’ll notice that the photographs in the background have doubled.)

  3) Next, slowly uncross your eyes until the two pairs of images begin to overlap. Direct your attention to the center of the overlapping area, where you will fuse the left and right images. When your eyes are crossed just the right amount, you will appear to be looking at three blurry images.

  4) Keeping your eyes crossed, examine the blurry details in the fused center image, and relax. After a few moments your brain will allow you to focus on the details without uncrossing your eyes, and the image will pop into sharp focus. The stereoscopic depth of the fused photographs should quickly become apparent.

  PLEASE NOTE: Some people find it easier to concentrate on the dots above the photographs. When the fused center dot comes into sharp focus, let your eyes drift down to the photographs without changing your focus. The free-viewing process can be somewhat stressful; If you should experience discomfort, discontinue and return to the task later. As you become more accustomed to the procedure, your eyes will relax and the discomfort will be reduced.

Source: Boris Starosta; To view additional 3-D images from photographer Boris Starosta, go HERE.

Another method for viewing the stereoscopic flag-raising photographs:

  My brother Eric recently told me about some interesting “twitchy” 3-D photographs that were collected by Mental Floss blogger David K. Israel. These images are based on standard stereoscopic techniques, which capture a single scene from two separate vantage points, just inches apart — in the same manner that our eyes and brain combine two slightly different perspectives to produce a sense of three-dimensional depth.

  As Israel explains, it is possible to produce a simple animation by alternating between the left and right images of a stereoscopic image, “twitching ever so slightly from the minuscule difference in perspective. The resulting effect creates images that have a sense of depth and three-dimensional quality to them, without the need for those annoying glasses.” Israel’s Mental Floss blog post, HERE, presents a small collection of animated 3-D images, including this one from Portland-based art director Matt Moore:

  The same techniques can be applied to the paired photographs of the Iwo Jima flag-raising:

  This simple “animation” of the two flag-raising images clearly shows the different camera angles of the two photographers. Marine cinematographer Sgt. Bill Genaust stood to the right of Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal, and shot the scene from a slightly higher elevation. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rosenthal photograph, Private First Class Rene Gagnon is barely visible on the far side of the flag pole; In the frame from Genaust’s film, Gagnon comes more fully into view. Also, because Rosenthal had taken a position that was somewhat lower than Genaust’s, the background of his famous image shows less of the island below Mount Suribachi’s peak.