"O holy one," he would say with a deep bend to touch his toes, and to the delight of any observer who would at once be surprised by his agility, his humor, and the half-joking respect shown to a editor young enough to be his granddaughter. Alfred had been at LIFE for thirty years by the time I arrived, and although we worked together for nearly another thirty, it is on Martha's Vineyard that I am as likely to remember him. We shared a love for the Vineyard, where the island light has warmed many an artists's vision, where Eisie had summered ever year since 1937, and where he died in August 1995, just a few years short of the century he chronicled.
The family photo he would take was something of a ritual of those vineyard summers. It would precede an early August dinner, on a day certain to coordinate with the perfection of the yellow daylilies, and minutely timed to capture those long evening rays of Vineyard sun. Not a problem for Eisie. Timing was the essence of his being. So, it was no surprise to find him perched on top of a tree stump, waiting, when we would pull up, invariably late, to drive him back to our house for dinner. Despairing for the vanishing light and despite my cousins who magically appeared to help fill the frame, Eisie worked quickly, and in a few clicks of the shutter he knew he had the picture. But it wasn't over for Eisie. Now he worried about the roll of film. I had placed it on the windowsill, and in hours, it will be morning. The light - no longer his to conjure - would be hot and destructive. He was always anticipating.
He was also endlessly curious - questions, constant questions. And he read. He could discuss anything - camera in hand, thoughtfully navigating his subjects field of interest, he would set the person at ease. Everything interested him. "Can you believe it?" he would ask, always amazed, never shocked.
When Eisie traveled he carried a bag, small and olive-brown. A Leica, a couple of lenses, a few rolls of film - that's all he needed. Rarely a light, occasionally a tripod. Eisie had thought it out. Comfortable with his camera and himself, knowledgeable about his subject, he would try - a day or two ahead with the light as he hoped it would be - to survey the location where he was to photograph. In his later years, when I would accompany him on a story that I had assigned, he would use me to move the contents of a room, then to rearrange them, and finally to become a stand-in for his subject: "Whatever you say, darling, you're the boss," he would say. But secretly we both knew that I was his assistant. All the time Eisie might be conversing with the real subject, arranging her pearly or straightening his tie in a moment of disarming intimacy. Then he would shoot. A few frames, "Thank you, I've got it." The preparation made it seem so effortless, And he was, generally, happy with his results.
It is unknown whether any amount of preparation would have helped when Eisie and a waiting reporter received the "Come on over, boys" call from a steamy Marilyn Monroe. He used the wrong film. But he got the picture.
Eisie's personal need were simple too. He was a private person, frugal, never lavish - honest and decent, as befitted a man of his generation. He dressed properly, wore a bow tie and "braces" and good shoes, and covered his head. In time, the hats and berets gave way to the baseball cap. And he found sneakers more to his liking.
At eighty, Eisie undertook a second career - a third if you include a twenty-year-old's false start as a button salesman - still photographing, but now delving into a sixty-year archive to publish books and mount exhibitions. He had become well known. Now he became famous. "My tombstone will say, 'Here lies Alfred Eisenstaedt, the man who took that Times Square photograph on V-J Day,'" he chuckled, uncovering new old treasures - some, great photographs of minor events or little-remembered people, made important again by the twists and turns of history. His career had run the entire history of photojournalism. Just as his five-foot-four-inch height had placed his camera and wide-angle lens at the center of his subjects, so had Eisie been in the middle of everything.
Whether applying his signature to a stack of prints or still eagerly listening to a young photographer - and ready to learn - a minimal gesture was all he needed to speak volumes. Folded arms and a slight lean forward would acknowledge a speaker's wisdom. Or, there were the lightly closed eyes and gentle head shake of resignation. "Cold fish" or "horrible man" were his epithets. "Unbelievable" his word for wonder.
"What you feel is in here," he would say, his index finger tapping his temple. And what he felt at ninety-six was young. Yet marveling at how he had changed physically during those last months, he would turn to his devoted sister-in-law Lulu, wanting to comprehend: My God, how could this have happened to me when just a year ago I was in the prime of my life?"
It's 7 A.M. Sunday, the morning after the Vineyard dinner. Eisie is on the phone. "Are you up? Did you take the roll of film out of the window?"
"No, Eisie." You could hear one of those minimal gestures, the gentle slap of his own head.
- Text provided with the courtesy of Bulfinch, Little, Brown and Co.
Bobbi Baker Burrows is the Picture Editor at LIFE Magazine, where she has worked for more than thirty years. She has edited some of the biggest stories of our time including the Apollo Space Program and the Olympics, as well as numerous exhibitions and publications.
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