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In April 1945, LIFE magazine published one of the most memorable cover images of its four-decade run as a major photographic weekly. The picture, made in March 1945 on the island of Iwo Jima by W. Eugene Smith, captures the deliberate violence inherent in all war as graphically as any photo ever published in LIFE. At first glance just another explosion in a war filled with millions of explosions, the picture grows more extraordinary the longer one gazes at it.
For its part, LIFE described Smith’s picture this way:
Here, LIFE.com presents not only the full, uncropped photograph, but an entire series of other photos — many of which never ran in LIFE — that Smith made on that sterile volcanic outcropping in the South Pacific, where thousands of men were fighting to the death as the long world war was winding to its grisly close.
The cover of that April 19, 1945, issue of LIFE is remarkable on a number of levels. For instance, aside from the LIFE logo and the most rudimentary information—the issue date, the price—there is no language, no text, no cover lines. Ninety-nine percent of the more than 2,000 LIFE covers ever published have at least some words letting the reader know what he or she is looking at, even if it’s something as straightforward as “Basketball,” or “Florida” or “Summer Fashion.” But the Iwo Jima cover has absolutely nothing but Smith’s picture.
No words. No descriptors. Nothing.
It’s almost as if, in April 1945, there was no need to let people know that the photograph was made on Iwo Jima. After all, was there anything else on most Americas’ minds that spring besides the war in the Pacific?
And then, of course, as with all of Smith’s photographs, there’s the sheer technical brilliance of the picture: the grim clarity of the scene, despite the chaotic nature of the explosion that serves as the thematic and visual center of the shot; the four Marines, barely visible at first, crouching behind a rock in the lower right of the frame; the terrible, blasted landscape that might have been the inspiration for stage directions in any number of Beckett’s plays—all of these elements cohere into a masterful, one might even say (through clenched teeth) a beautiful portrait of destruction.
LIFE, meanwhile, described the Battle of Iwo Jima, and the island itself, in words that, at times, sound weirdly reminiscent of Tolkein’s unforgettable depictions of the desolate land of Mordor the Lord of the Rings: