Why We Chose Alfred Eisenstaedt
as "Photojournalist of the Century" 
 
Editorial By Dirck Halstead
 
A while back, we decided that if The Digital Journalist made it to the end of the millennium, we wanted to pay homage to the one photojournalist among all others who had made the greatest contribution, not only to our profession, but to our photographic legacy as well.
 
This person had to be a photojournalist first and foremost. There are many photographers, like Paul Strand, Richard Avedon, Arnold Newman, and Ansel Adams, who have had a monumental impact on photography as artists and innovators. But, if anything, the 20th century is and has been the time of the photojournalist. The impact of the visual storyteller is perhaps the most profound factor in how we remember the great events and people of this amazing century.
 
We also chose to differentiate photojournalists from "news photographers," but not out of any sort of elitism. Certainly, there have been so many great pictures made by working news photographers, from Joe Rosenthal's flag being raised on Iwo Jima, to Eddie Adam's icon of a Vietcong being shot on a street in Saigon. We looked past individual photographs. We looked to those people with a special gift for storytelling, those who learned to use the technology, made possible by the 35mm camera, to go beyond the "decisive moment" and illuminate the lives of people and the events surrounding them.
 
The field of candidates included the following: 
  • Edward Steichen, who was probably the most influential person in photography, and whose work ranged from portraiture to organizing the Steichen Group for the Navy in World War II, to creating the Family of Man exhibition, setting the high-marker for photography's impact in the 20th Century; 
  • LIFE's Gordon Parks, not only broke the racial barrier in big-time photojournalism, but set the mark for the Platypus by adding writing, poetry, art, and film direction to his spectacular resume; 
  • Erich Salomon, the father of candid photojournalism; 
  • Margaret Bourke-White, who set the standard for women--and men--and contributed LIFE's first cover; 
  • Gjon Mili, who applied Dr. Harold Edgerton's strobe light to journalism; 
  • Weegee, who elevated news photography to documentary status; 
  • Larry Burrows, the gentleman photographer, who left us with such memorable images of the Vietnam War; 
  • Robert Capa, a true legend; 
  • Carl Mydans, probably the best all-around journalist in photography; 
  • Ralph Morse, who was there for Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, and wound up as the "dean of space photography;"
  • Don McCullin, the bravest and most sensitive of war photographers; 
  • Harry Benson, who took his Fleet Street skills to the very top of the profession; 
  • Sebastiao Salgado, the committed documentarian; 
  • Henri Cartier-Bresson, who defined the term "the decisive moment"; 
  • David Douglas Duncan, whose passion for truth and beauty extended from the battlefield to Picasso's studio; 
  • David Rubinger, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, who documented the birth and formative years of the State of Israel; and 
  • W. Eugene Smith, the master of the photo-essay, who used his gifts for the betterment of mankind. 

However, when it came to choosing the one photojournalist who had the most profound impact, and who leaves the greatest legacy, there was no question whom that person is Alfred Eisenstaedt. 

Eisie took note early on as a news photographer in Berlin, in the late 1920s of a new small camera invented by Dr. Erich Salomon: the Ermanox. By reducing the image size to that of a postage stamp, it was possible to devise lenses for it fast enough to take pictures with ordinary room light, no flash. Eisie instinctively understood that with this tool it would be possible to work unobtrusively, recording people as they really are. He took advantage of every talent and attribute he had. 

One, an accident of God, was his small stature. Eisie could easily slip unnoticed into a room. He was a chameleon, and his charm made him welcome with every subject he approached. Most important, as Carl Mydans writes in this month's issue, he had the curiosity of a child. He never stopped being amazed and delighted by watching and photographing the people around him. This youthfulness of mind and spirit endured throughout his life. A year before he died, in 1995, he told me "I have the body of a 90-year-old, but the mind of a 20-year-old."
 
He never tired of taking pictures. During his annual vacations at his home on Martha's Vineyard, he would set about documenting the island he loved so much. The amount of work he produced throughout his lifetime is prodigious. From LIFE cover stories to scores of exhibitions and many books, his photography is constantly being rediscovered. Henry Luce, as he was creating LIFE Magazine, understood that Eisie was the prototype for this new breed of visual storyteller. Eisie in turn, created the form and shape of the photo-essay that provided the foundation on which other photographers would build.
 
We miss him very much, but take comfort in knowing that he is still with us through his brilliant images the gift he left to the world. 
 

Dirck Halstead 

THIS EDITORIAL IS COPYRIGHTED BY DIRCK HALSTEAD. 
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

 
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