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Monday, October 21, 2013

Alfred Eisenstaedt

Times Square, August 14, 1945, Alfred Eisenstaedt--the shot that didn't become famous.
The Kiss, 1945, Alfred Eisenstaedt,
the shot seen round the world.
The most difficult aspect of writing about famous photographers is that they produce so much great art it's incredibly difficult to choose from their reams upon reams of work, that which to highlight. In writing about the German-born American photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, that has been an excruciating process. Every photographer dreams of taking that one great iconic photo, which will forever etch his or her name in the annuls of history. For Eisenstaedt, that moment has come not once, but again and again. Undoubtedly the greatest of those great moments occurred August 14, 1945, on the streets of Times Square in New York City when he shot the unforgettable photo of a triumphant sailor kissing a white-clad angel of mercy. Although there was a lot of kissing going on that day, it was no accident Eisenstaedt was in the right place at the right time. Neither was the photo an accident (one of five or six frames of the scene). Compare the shot at top, taken just seconds before the famous "Kiss" photo at left. Can you see why one made it, the other didn't? Same time, same people, same place, same photographer. Only the artist's persistent, perceptive instincts for perfection--angle, focus, composition, background, lighting, contrasts--made the difference. Those were the instincts that separated Eisenstaedt from the dozens of other outstanding photo-journalists of the 20th century.

Hitler meeting with Mussolini, 1934, Alfred Eisenstaedt.
An Alfred Eisenstaedt, "selfie" from the 1930s
Alfred Eisenstaedt was born in the West Prussia area of Imperial Germany in 1898. As has happened surprisingly often in the lives of great photographers, Eisenstaedt began taking photos as the result of a gift camera, a folding Eastman Kodak, when he was fourteen. He was wounded serving in the German artillery during WW I, then worked as a belt and button salesman during the Weimar era when he began freelancing for the Berlin office of Pacific and Atlantic Photos. In 1931 the company became a part of the Associated Press. During the period between then and 1936 when he fled to the U.S., Eisenstaedt photographed the rise of both Hitler and Mussolini, and was friendly with Hitler's propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels...until Goebbels found out he was Jewish.

Three Frames of Marilyn, 1953, Alfred Eisenstaedt,
his largest and most famous celebrity series.
Sophia Loren, 1964from Marriage
Italian Style, Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Taking up permanent residence in the Jackson Heights area of The Queens, Eisenstaedt went to work for Time publisher Henry Luce's newly revitalized, and heavily photographic, Life magazine. It was a perfect fit. Eisenstaedt produced some ninety covers during the next thirty-six years. More than anything else, this association, and the doors to the rich and famous which it opened, made Eisenstaedt. Moving freely From movie stars, particularly Marilyn Monroe (above) and Sophia Loren (right), to politicians, scientists, athletes, including drum majors and the neighborhood kids who followed them (below), Eisenstaedt found himself in the enviable position of having celebrities request he photograph them, rather than vice-versa. His portfolio includes every president (and their families) from FDR to Bill Clinton. Only Eisenstaedt's death in 1995 at the age of 97 put an end to this series.

Children Following the Drum Major, University of Michigan, 1950, Alfred Eisenstaedt.
The Nurses of Roosevelt Hospital,
1937, Alfred Eisenstaedt.
If Alfred Eisenstaedt had only photographed famous world leaders and celebrities, he would still have been a celebrated personage in his own right. But in viewing Eisenstaedt's work from an artist's point of view, I find his many "snapshots" of American life during the previous century to be the dominant element in his best work. Virtually any reasonably adept photographer with the kind of connections afforded Eisenstaedt by Life can take great photos of the photogenic--Marilyn, Sophia, JFK, Jackie, even the homely old Albert Einstein or the crusty Winston Churchill. But Life was about life, and Eisenstaedt routinely went about giving life to the pages of Life. Some of his photos were elaborately staged to tell a story while presenting startling images (left). Others, such as his Times Square masterpiece, involved instinctive, instantaneous, "on the feet" thinking. These Eisenstaedt instincts mark the difference between a great photographer and a great artist.

Eisenstaedt's final president(s?) 1993, Martha's Vineyard.


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