~ one of a series of posts dedicated to icons in the field of photography ~
Whenever I look through Alfred Eisenstaedt’s work I smile and step more lightly. He himself radiated cheer and good will to everybody, and he had a knack for finding it in the world around him. But there is more than humor that makes his work special. His subjects go about life right in front of his lens, sometimes apparently without noticing his presence, other times stopping to peer directly at him. But whether or not his subjects notice him, his photographs always reveal inner secrets about them. It’s as though he bores right through their facades and deep into their essences. I wish he had photographed me; if he had, I would look at the image everyday just so I could know myself better.
Eisenstaedt was born in Dirschau, West Prussia, 1898. When he was fourteen one of his uncles gave him an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera No. 3. That was his first encounter with photography. Three years later he was drafted into the German army. The Great War took the lives of all his comrades; he was wounded and survived. After the war he sold buttons and pursued his passion for photography.
[I took my first enlarged picture] to all sorts of photo magazines. Finally, the editor of the weekly magazine Der Welt Spiegel said, “I like it. I’ll give you three marks (about twelve dollars at that time). Bring me more pictures like that.”
“Goodness,” I said, “you get paid for pictures.” I had no idea that professional photography existed.
Of course, I was still selling belts and buttons because I had to make a living. One day my boss said to me, “Look, you are such a bad salesman.”
“I know I am bad, because I am not really interested in selling buttons. I have other interests. I want to do photography.” He looked at me as if I were going to cut my throat. The idea of ph0tography was as new as flying…so I left the firm on the third of December, 1929, and became a professional.
Photojournalism was in its infancy back then. Eisenstaedt traveled Europe carrying 240 pounds of equipment photographing crown princes and kings. His coat pockets were reinforced to carry his heavy glass plates. He approached every assignment with the enthusiasm and excitement of a child, as if it were his first. I like his willingness to laugh at life. Many of his famous photographs are colored with humor and he was unafraid to laugh even at himself.
My second assignment was a disaster. I had to go to Assisi to photograph the wedding of King Boris of Bulgaria to the youngest daughter of King Victor Emmanuel of Italy. When I arrived I was so fascinated by the pageantry, watching King Ferdinand of Bulgaria trotting along with the longest nose in the world…I forgot all about the assignment and never took the picture of the groom and the bride. When I returned to Berlin there was an uproar, but they couldn’t fire me because I was still only a freelance.
[In 1947 I was so excited about photographing Albert Einstein and Robert Oppenheimer] that I at first forgot to put film in my camera. When I discovered it, I sneaked out pretending that something was wrong with my camera.
Eisenstaedt was Jewish; between the wars he emigrated to the United States and was hired by a new magazine called Life. They wanted him to tell stories with his photographs. This was a new concept in America but a very common one in Europe, so he felt right at home. In his 60 years as a photojournalist he photographed 2500 assignments worldwide and 92 of his photographs appeared on the cover of Life. The names of his subjects fill the pages of history books. Igor Stravinsky and Jasha Heiffetz, Arturo Toscanini and Richard Strauss, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, Queen Elizabeth and Winston Churchill, Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw and Earnest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren, presidents, heads of state, the famous and the unknown, the rich and the poor. His eye spied out all of them. He has long been honored as the father of photojournalism and more recently as the photojournalist of the century. His body of work is more recognizable than that of any other photographer who has ever lived. He was indeed a witness to his time.
At a concert in Carnegie Hall just after Pearl Harbor, I clicked while Toscanini, facing the audience, the whole orchestra standing, conducted the “Star Spangled Banner.” A historic moment! When I took the photograph to my editors, they asked, “Where are the other pictures?” I had only taken one. I am known at Life magazine as one of the great undershooters.
Other sources and more about Eisenstaedt:
- Life-Time.com – galleries with large images
- Monroe Gallery – gallery and images for purchase
- digitaljournalist.org – galleries, anecdotes by friends of Eisenstaedt, & images for purchase
- photographersgallery.com – outstanding gallery of Eisenstaedt’s work
- Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt (book) – essential reading; Eisenstaedt reminisces about his life and photographs
- Witness To Our Time (book) – one of the best pictorial collections of Eisenstaedt’s work