Eisenstaedt's Ode to Joy
by David Friend
Alfred Eisenstaedt was the most celebrated photographer working at the mid-century's most popular magazine. He covered Ethiopian royalty and German dirigibles, captured landscapes from St. Moritz to Martha's Vineyard, stared down Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Goebbels. But his acclaim came from his more spirited images, the ones that distilled everyday life to its essential joie de vivre: the drum major high-stepping across a Michigan lawn; a clutch of children exploding with surprise at the climax of a puppet show; a sailor swooping an unsuspecting nurse into history's most famous anonymous embrace. To Eisenstaedt (or Eisie, as so many of us knew him), the camera was a conduit for transmitting pure joy. 

While others rendered the American century in similarly uplifting strokes--Norman Rockwell on canvas, Frank Capra on screen, Irving Berlin in song--no one before or since has surpassed Eisie in using a still camera to convey the ebullient moment. His classic, the V-J Day kiss, shot in 1945, embodied the joy of victory after years of war. So universal has the photograph become that many Americans actually believed they were one of the participants in that Times Square kiss "heard 'round the world." Over the years, more than a dozen men and  several women have written LIFE with convincing explanations as to why he or she had to be the sailor or the nurse in Eisie's famous frame. Talk about identifying with a picture! 

Eisie's enduring spirit was in evidence just a few weeks ago. 

One of his best friends, photographer Carl Mydans, is a neighbor of mine in Westchester County, New York. Last month, Carl, his wife Shelley and I went to view some Halloween decorations in our town. At one point , I remember looking over and seeing Carl, now 92, standing amid a pile of leaves, marveling at the holiday display. As he smiled, ear to ear, with autumn's gold all around him, he leaned on the cane that for many years had been his friend Alfred Eisenstaedt's. It had been a gift to Carl from his colleagues at Time-Life. 

Even in this subtle way, Eisie's buoyant presence seemed to color the day, supporting and uplifting. I only wish he had been there to capture his friend's quiet delight on film. 

David Friend, who created the first annual Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards for Magazine Photography, is Vanity Fair's editor of creative development. Friend curated "Vanity Fair and the Birth of the Modern Age: Portraits 1914-1936," on exhibit at Manhattan's Newseum/NY through January 3, 2000.

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