On D-Day anniversary, 'Into the Jaws of Death' remains among greatest wartime photos

Robert Sargent's historic photo shows soldiers storming Omaha Beach 80 years ago today

Cover Image for On D-Day anniversary, 'Into the Jaws of Death' remains among greatest wartime photos
"Into the Jaws of Death" has become one of the most iconic wartime photos. (Heritage Auctions)

The Type 1 photo of Robert Sargent’s “Into the Jaws of Death," taken during the invasion of Normandy on this date 80 years ago, ranked as the most valuable wartime photograph ever sold until its $93,000 price tag was surpassed last weekend.

On the surface, that a collector paid that price in October 2023 is not surprising.

It’s an iconic photo of a group of young American soldiers, whose odds of dying that day in France were among the most likely of any battle in United States history.

"Into the Jaws of Death" was taken 80 years ago on D-Day. (Credit: Heritage Auctions)
"Into the Jaws of Death" was taken 80 years ago on D-Day. (Credit: Heritage Auctions)

As the door opened to their landing craft, the Americans faced heavy fire from the Germans, who were positioned on top of Normandy’s bluffs. Imagine facing that onslaught while carrying a 100-pound backpack through the rough waters that day. Make it to the beach, and there are land mines to navigate.

Does the historic significance of the photo automatically make it a great collectible?

It’s a loaded question because so few people know about Type 1 photos — photos that are taken from an original negative and published within two years of being taken.

By grading and slabbing them, PSA has contributed to a huge jump in value for the best of the best, but the lack of a population report makes it hard to do the deep dive that so many collectors like when considering scarcity.

The first question we ask on Type 1 photos is: What is the likely original run?

This is always a tricky question, but there are a couple nuances with this photo, according to Henry Yee, head of PSA photo authentication.

“Into the Jaws of Death” had a larger run than most because it was distributed by the U.S. Coast Guard. A wide swath of media organizations received it.

Compare that to the "Flag Raising on Iwo Jima," an Associated Press photo that sold for $103,090 on Saturday. The AP distribution was much smaller than the list aggregated by the government military outlets, so it starts with a smaller base.

One of just three authenticated original photos of the "Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima" sold for $103,900 on Saturday. (Credit: Goldin Auctions)
One of just three authenticated original photos of the "Raising of the Flag on Iwo Jima" sold for $103,900 on Saturday. (Credit: Goldin Auctions)

We then ask: How likely is it that the photo survived?

Yee told cllct one might think that the greatest factor on population is age. That’s not necessarily true in that there was little affecting file folders of photos in the offices of newsrooms for the first 50 years of this photo’s existence. The greater challenge was digitization in its last 30 years, which resulted in most, if not all, purging of the originals.

The next question is the hardest. What is the guess of the population of a photo like this?

Population reports have spoiled us in cards and tickets. We use them to make informed decisions on value. The fact that there aren’t definitive numbers hurts the Type 1 photo sector and will likely be required for PSA to widen the category.

Yee says PSA likely has graded 12 “Jaws of Death” Type 1s to three from Iwo Jima.

That being said, there’s a question of what collectors want to own.

“I’ve been collecting photography since the '80s, and I have personally witnessed that photo growing in stature over the decades,” said Yee, who mentioned this photo, in a Type 1, could have been had for $1,000 in 2004. “It has become more and more desirable over the years because of those who grew up watching that surreal opening scene in 'Saving Private Ryan' are at the near-peak or peak earnings period in their careers, kind of like how the Griffey and MJ market has taken off because guys that spend big bucks today — that was their childhood.”

Yee says that based on population, the Iwo Jima photo should be more collectible.

I disagree for a couple reasons.

First of all, a population of 12 versus a population of three is relatively insignificant in the scheme of things.

Second, while the planting of the flag is an iconic image, so much less is known about the specific instances of the Pacific versus what happened in Europe. And while Iwo Jima signifies triumph, it is undoubtedly trumped, in my opinion, by “Jaws of Death” contemplating a soldier’s sacrifice and selflessness for his own country.

Third, we know who the men are at Iwo Jima. We largely don’t in Sargent’s boat at Omaha Beach. But we do know most of them in this circumstance, in the first wave, had a better than 75% chance of dying. The unknown nature of who they are makes it more compelling.

And finally — the title.

While some might debate whether the photo is the greatest wartime photo of all time, its title is clearly the best. “Into the Jaws of Death,” is taken from the words in the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the title perfectly describes the circumstances.

When I look at Sargent's photo, I have an inability to reconcile the sacrifice of these men, who with their one life, for our country, agreed to do what they did.

That inability to resolve my feelings means I keep staring at it over and over again and makes this photo an indelible image worth owning.

Darren Rovell is the founder of cllct.com and one of the country's leading reporters on the collectible market. He previously worked for ESPN, CNBC and The Action Network.