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Alfred Eisenstaedt, better known to his friends, and now the world, as 'Eisie', has often aroused controversy among photographers. There are those who regard this photographer who shot over 80 Life covers as 'the father of photojournalism' and the photojournalist whose work had the greatest impact in the 20th century, while others regard him simply as an excellent photographer who took a few pictures that caught the public imagination, but occupies a relatively minor place in the history of the medium.
Certainly, as a photojournalist he was around the top of his profession for many years. His work was popular, helping to sell Life and to tell the stories. This is perhaps the problem. Eisie's work was 'easy looking', both easy to look at, and stunning in the apparent simplicity of his approach.
It was popular rather than highbrow, a photographic equivalent of 'easy listening'. He had a great gift for communicating with people, both while he was photographing them, and also through his pictures, and it was at the base of his work. As he said, "Never boss people around. It's more important to click with people than to click the shutter." Although he seldom if ever failed to click the shutter at the right time, it was the rapport that came first.
The photographer who, more than anyone else, can claim to have invented photojournalism was Dr Erich Salomon (1886-1944.) The Ermanox 858, made in Dresden in 1924 was a small rigid 4.5 x 6cm plate camera, its rectangular body dominated by a large diameter f1.8 or f2 lens, designed by Ludwig Bertele, and a focal plane shutter giving speeds to 1/1200s. Focussing was by scale, aided by the depth of field of the relatively small 645 format, and the 85mm focal length was roughly standard for the format. The wide lens aperture made hand-held photography in available light much easier with this camera than with anything that had gone before.
It was this camera that allowed Salomon to take his 'candid' pictures of society life in Berlin and other capitals, including pictures showing the leaders of nations at their meetings. Security was rather less strict than now, and Salomon dressed the part and knew the right people, often managing simply to walk in to meetings. At times he photographed with the camera built in to a specially modified briefcase, which enabled him to photograph secretly in court during a murder trial, but most of his pictures were taken with the camera at eye-level. And there were some stunning pictures, such as one of Ramsay MacDonald, Albert Einstein, and Hermann Schmitz at the German Chancellery in Berlin, 1931, which was published in 'Fortune' magazine in 1931.
le roi des indiscrets
Possibly his best-known image, and certainly most often quoted incident in his life is a picture of statesman meeting in Paris at the Quai d'Orsay in 1931. Aristide Briand, the French foreign minister, points an accusing finger in his direction, smilingly pointing out "Voila, le roi des indiscrets", there he is, the king of candid photographers, without whose presence no meeting could really be considered important. He visited America, where he was the first European photographer to work in the White House.
When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, Salomon, visiting relatives in the Hague, decided it was too dangerous for him as a Jew to return and he settled his family in Holland. Unfortunately after the Germans invaded Holland he was arrested and later died in Auschwitz.
Leica & Contax
The reign of the Ermanox was short-lived, with the first production Leica, the Leica I, being marketed in Spring 1925 to immediate success, followed by an interchangeable lens model in 1930. Using 35mm film rather than plates made the camera more convenient to use. The Ernemann company was taken over by Zeiss in 1926, and they continued to produce the Ermanox cameras (there were also larger folding variants and even a reflex model) making the rigid 858 model until 1931. The following year, Zeiss Ikon produced their answer to the Leica, the Contax I. Many photographers preferred it to the Leica, not least for its superior Zeiss lenses.
Another camera popular with photojournalists was the twin lens reflex Rollei; the prototypes were made in 1928 and the camera went on sale in 1929. It produced 12 square 6x6cm negatives on 120 roll film. It was a classic design that has changed relatively little in modern Rolleiflexes. This was also a good camera for 'candid' photography, as it is normally used without the photographer drawing attention by raising the camera to eye level.
Alfred Eisenstaedt was born in Dirschau, West Prussia (then a part of Germany, now Poland) in 1898, the son of a merchant. He grew up in Berlin, where the family moved when he was 8, and when he was 14, an uncle gave him a Eastman Kodak No. 3 camera.
He studied at Berlin University from 1913 until 1916, when he was drafted into the German army and sent to fight in the Flanders trenches. His artillery battery at Verdun was hit and he was the only survivor, though shrapnel damage to his legs meant he could not walk unaided for a year. Eisie spent much of his time recovering from the wounds on crutches visiting museums to study lighting and composition in their paintings. His knees remained deformed for the rest of his life.
After a number of odd jobs Eisie found permanent work in 1922 as a belt and button salesman for a Berlin firm, continuing to take photographs in his spare time and developing and contact printing them in his home bathroom. His earnings as a salesmen meant he could afford a better camera, a Zeiss Ideal taking 9 x12cm glass plates.
First Photo Sale
On a holiday with his parents in Czechoslovakia in 1927, he took a picture of a woman playing tennis, intrigued by her lengthy shadow on the court. He showed it to a friend who asked why he didn't enlarge it. Eisenstaedt didn't then know this could be done. His friend showed him to make a simple enlarger made by adding a lamp housing to the camera, and how this could be used to make bigger prints. He also showed him that you could crop the print. Eisie's eyes were openedto the possibilities offered by photography, and they opened even wider when he got paid 12 marks (about $3) by Der Welt Spiegel to publish it.
The following year Eisie started working as part-time as a freelance for the Berlin office of Pacific and Atlantic Photo (it became Associated Press in 1931), and in a year or two was earning enough from photography to give up the belts and buckles and go full-time as a photographer. He also met and worked with Erich Salomon.
The Skating Waiter
From the Zeiss Ideal he had moved up to another plate camera, the Zeiss Ikon Miroflex, a folding SLR press camera, and he used this to take pictures such as that of the skating waiter at St Moritz. Action shots were tricky with these larger cameras (the more common Miroflex took 9x12cm plates and its standard lens was a 165mm) particularly because of their limited depth of field.
Eisie solved the problem by putting a chair on the ice and asking the waiter to skate past it. He set up his camera trained and focussed on the chair and took the image precisely as the waiter's shadow passed it. Perhaps by the kind of accident that favours the trained mind, the chair also works compositionally, balancing the tray at top right, leading the eye from the bottom left of the picture to the waiter. The chair's slender curves contrast with the powerful black bulk of his suited body, the seat paralleling his right arm stretched out above it. It also situates the image; this is not just a skating waiter, but the chair is a cafe chair, telling us he is in a cafe, not just set up for the camera.
In 1931 or 2, he bought an early model of one the camera that was to be associated with him for the rest of his career, a Leica. It was a camera ideally suited to his style of working, simple and direct. His favourite lens in later life was the 35mm, and his advice on photography was to become comfortable with your camera and to "keep it simple". It was a philsophy that worked brilliantly for him. In later years
In 1933 he covered a meeting of the League of Nations. In a hotel garden he came across Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's Minister of Culture and Propaganda, sitting on a chair, with his interpreter holding a paper at his side and his private secretary standing behind. As Eisie went to take a picture, Goebbels looked up, and saw this "non-Aryan photographer" about to photograph him. His eyes give a look of intense hate ("deep love", joked Eisie later).
Hitler & Mussolini
In June, 1934, he photographed the famous handshake between Hitler and Mussolini as they met for the first time on an airfield at Venice, Hitler in a raincoat stretching forwards, bumptious, eager to please, Mussolini graver and more reserved in his military uniform. Two months later, Hitler became Fuhrer of the Third Reich following the death of Hindenberg, and Eisie photographed him for the last time, in uniform at Hindenberg's funeral.
The writing was clearly on the wall for Jewish photographers in Germany, and in 1935 the 37-year-old photographer left for New York, escaping the Holocaust. He was not to return to Germany for 45 years.
In New York he was fortunate that as an AP freelancer he got work almost straight away. His big break came in early 1936, when he was approached by Henry Luce, founder of 'Time' magazine, and set to work with three other photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, Thomas McAvoy and Peter Stackpole, on 'Project X'. Six months later, on November 23, 1936, the first issue of 'Life' appeared, with 5 pages of Eisie's pictures. The next week, he had the first of almost a hundred cover pictures for the magazine.
Eisie had one advantage when working for 'Life' after the start of the war; he was not a US citizen, so could not be sent to cover the war for the magazine. Instead he got used for more than his share of celebrity portraits and other work within the US. Doubtless there was some pressure from both his employers and colleagues for him to become a US citizen, and he did so in 1942. After that he could be sent abroad too.
By 1935, Eisie had another camera to use along with his Leica. Discreet though that could be, the Rolleiflex TLR was even quieter, and allowed him to take pictures without even looking at the subject. The Rolleiflex is normally held at waist height, and you approach your subject in obeisance, head bowed towards the viewing screen pressed against your stomach. He was a small man, 5ft 3in or so, and moved quietly. Later in life he was also to make use of Nikon SLRs, but the Leica remained his favourite
The Kissing Sailor
In the crowded Times Square of V J Day in August 1945 he was invisible as he followed a sailor who was rushing along grabbing every woman he passed and kissing them. Most of the women were wearing dark clothes, but one, a nurse stood out. As the pair embraced, Eisie raised one of the two Leicas he was carrying and took 4 or 5 frames, without them noticing. Rather to his chagrin, this became the single picture for which most people remembered him; he preferred several of his others.
Soon after he was in Japan, going with Emperor Hirohito to Hiroshima, where he photographed a striking image of a mother and child in the devastated landscape. The following year he photographed the atomic scientist J Robert Oppenheimer, together with Albert Einstein. For once he was so overawed by the occasion he forgot to put film in his camera; he had to sneak away, load up and make the pictures again.
Another occasion he had similar problems was photographing Marilyn Monroe in 1953. Arriving in Hollywood he met up with a reporter who knew her. He phoned her and she invited the two of them to come up to her place. Eisie had two Leicas around his neck, one with black and white and the other with colour film, and got so excited that he mixed the two up, giving incorrect exposures. Only two of the colour pictures came out. His black and white image of her is probably my favourite, one of the few that really seems to capture her appeal.
Eisie married in 1949, to South African Kathy Kaye, who he met in New York. After she died of cancer in 1972, her sister Lulu took over much of the planning of his social life, especially during the summers that he had spent at Martha's Vineyard since he had fallen in love with the place on his first visit there in 1937. At the end of his life he moved there and continued to photograph it almost until his last days.
Eisie was generous with his time and knowledge, but expected to be treated with the same respect that he always gave to others. In some of the links from this feature you can read the many warm reminiscences of those who knew and loved the man, including those of some fine photographers who worked with him, including a fine and moving tribute from William E Marks, who visited him often in his last years.
Eisie's last professional assignment was photographing the Clinton family at the Vineyard in August 1993, and Marks was there to change his lenses as his own hands were too stiff. Marks also shared much of Eisie's final days and was with him and Lulu at the moment of his death in August, 1995.
Although I never met the man, I saw him on film and video. Even at that remove he was impressive. He had a great memory even for events many years before, and to find images in the large stacks of paper boxes in his studio/darkroom. Out photographing on the streets in his 70s or 80s he was remarkably active, and bursting with curiosity about what was going on around him. One scene in particular sticks in my mind; as he photographs some kids on the street, they ask him if he is a professional, if he is from the papers. "No", he assured them, "just an amateur", and in the best sense of the word, despite being supremely professional, he was so, photographing for love and to please himself.
Article source: About.com Photography
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