Alfred Eisenstaedt was a lover of photography, of light, and of life. The first embraced the next two and allowed him to share his loves with millions of people. He learned photography initially by doing it; his sense of light came from his visual study of old master paintings, especially Rembrandt; as for love of life, that came from the heart quite naturally.
In this issue, we explore the many aspects of Eisenstaedt's multifaceted photography. Ranging from the iconic Times Square kiss on VJ Day, to the photographs of his beloved Martha's Vineyard, this selection of images from the thousands possible, respectfully approaches a photographer of truly great talent.
Born in Dirschau, West Prussia, in 1898, his family moved to Berlin in 1906. He was drafted into the army at age 17. Wounded in the Great War, he went home to find some way to make money during the depression. He sold belts and buttons for a wholesaler, saving a portion of his earnings to buy photographic equipment.
His initial break came in 1927 when he made a photograph of a woman playing tennis. He was excited just to get a result, but his life direction really took shape with three other related events. First, a friend suggested that he enlarge the photograph and crop it to make a more powerful arrangement. The photographer is quoted in EISENSTAEDT ON EISENSTAEDT(1985): "When I saw that one could enlarge and eliminate unnecessary details, the photo bug bit me and I saw enormous possibilities."
Secondly, the editor of DER WELT SPIEGEL paid for the tennis player photo and published it in the magazine. Eisenstaedt writes, "Goodness, you get paid for pictures."
Thirdly, when he returned to the editor with a second photograph, which was also chosen for the magazine, the editor took time to tell the young photographer, "If you want to succeed in photography you should look at the work of Dr. Erich Salomon."
Salomon used an Ermanox to make his groundbreaking images of politicians. So, Eisie bought an Ermanox. Erich Salomon was quite famous for photography. A contemporary TIME magazine described his work in much the same way as Eisenstaedt's photographs would later be praised: the photographs are "the art of presenting the psychologically important and interesting moment in a manner so striking the observer can comprehend the situation at a glance. The photo becomes a camera anecdote."
The first "Ermanox job" was to photograph a meeting of the Salvation Army. Eisenstaedt describes the use of the camera on another job: "You approach with camera and tripod, ask permission to photograph, and set up. First you must focus through the camera's ground-glass back, using a small pocket magnifier. Then, put in the metal plate holder with its glass plate, and remove the slide. Next you have to watch very closely. Replace the slide, remove the plate and holder. One shot. In looking back, I'm amazed we were able to get the candid results we did." (THE EYE OF EISENSTAEDT, 1969)
In 1932 he purchased his first Leica, a camera that used 35mm movie film. Now, he was not dependent on one glass plate and plenty of time--rolled film freed him to continue seeing and working for longer periods. Also in the 1930s, Eisenstaedt watched the steady rise of Hitler and the Nazis; he decided it was time to leave.
Arriving in New York, in 1935, he was soon showing his portfolio to Henry Luce, of TIME magazine fame. By 1936, he was one of four photographers enlisted to work on a new publication. LIFE publisher Henry Luce is quoted in EISENSTAEDT: REMEMBRANCES (1990), "My confidence in LIFE, in our actual ability to do a good job of pictorial journalism, began when Alfred Eisenstaedt came back from his first prepublication assignment."
To America, the photographer brought European politeness, charm, art sensibilities, and his own work ethic, which he passed along to many young photographers. Eisie wrote that as "a photojournalist, you must not be conceited or choosy about your assignments. You learn something from every picture you take. The ideal attitude of a photojournalist is typified for me by my LIFE magazine colleague, Margaret Bourke-White. At the peak of her distinguished career, she was as willing and eager as any beginner on a first assignment. If you ever lose this kind of interest and enthusiasm, you might as well say good-by to photography." (THE EYE OF EISENSTAEDT, 1969)
Eisie preferred using natural light and stayed away from all harshness in his compositions. When working with people--his primary subject--he put sitters at ease before he ever used the camera. He liked to use a tripod so he could stand beside the camera and continue the conversation while watching for the right moment.
The elegance of his compositions can be seen from his earliest work. In "La Scala, Milan," the curve of the ornate balconies come toward the viewer. The only face that can be clearly seen is that of a young woman whose hair circles her head and whose arm rests in a languid curve on the pillowed rail.
In the justly famous "V.J. Day at Times Square, New York City, August 15, 1945," the sailor pulls the woman up toward him, thus arching her back. Her light-stockinged leg completes the semicircle. The sailor's back is arched down over her, creating part of another circle. The photograph is black and white, and these two people represent that strong contrast. Other people are smiling in the far background and the straight gray buildings frame the encircling kiss.
The portraits of Sophia Loren have a wonderful spark of mischievousness or, as in the more formal color portraits, a dignity and love that is brought to the picture by both sitter and photographer. As Eisie remarked, "I am always surrounded by her pictures."
Laughing along with Eisie is easy in the series of pictures he made of himself dressed up as Veronica Lake, or Napoleon. This was a man who gave himself over to the moment, chortling all the way.
In a different type of work the harmony remains. Eisenstaedt's gentle color photographs of leaves within a landscape create quiet swirling patterns on the ground. The work on Martha's Vineyard also displays the possibilities of Eisie's work. One is taken into the sky and spaces of great beauty.
This was a man who loved people--celebrities, beggars, children, everyone. His photographs are not the exposés of the 1990s. He waited patiently for the right moment. He could also let his innate photographic nature take precedence over his intellect in some of his greatest photographs. He let go. But, he was extremely serious about his work and the obligations of a photojournalist.
Like his photograph of the waiter flying
across the ice in St. Moritz, Alfred Eisenstaedt was in control of his
medium, everything had its own balance and graceful presence. We are fortunate
to have lived with this great teacher and humanitarian. His images continue
to contribute both insights and great pleasure to the world.
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