Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Alfred Eisenstaedt: The Simple Photographer

Great Artists

When I married in 1949, my wife asked me. 'But where are your real cameras?' I never carried a lot of equipment. My motto has always been, 'Keep it simple.'
Alfred Eisenstaedt

In Times Square on V.J. Day, I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing every girl in sight. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse...I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.
Alfred Eisenstaedt

Alfred Eisenstaedt [1898-1995]: He was known to keep things simple, and to work with minimal equipment: a Leica 35mm rangefinder camera, and natural light. Equally important was to connect with people: "Never boss people around. It's more important to click with people than to click the shutter."
Photo Source:

You might not know the photographer but you know the iconic photograph. A sailor grabs hold of a nurse and kisses her at New York's Times Square photograph on V-J Day, in August 1945, at the announced end of the Second World War. That was the work of Alfred Eisenstaedt, a quick-thinking photographer who stood five-foot-four, was simple in approach and taste, common to the generation that he was born into, a Jewish immigrant from Germany. He was very private person, revealing little about his life.

That photograph forever established his reputation. Other known facts about Eisenstaedt was that his nickname was Eisie; and he loved spending time at Martha's Vineyard, a small island situated south of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

In "Appreciation of Eisie," published in the DigitalJournalist, Bobbi Baker Burrows writes:
Eisie's personal needs were simple too. He was a private person, frugal, never lavish —honest and decent, as befitted a man of his generation. He dressed properly, wore a bow tie and "braces" and good shoes, and covered his head. In time, the hats and berets gave way to the baseball cap. And he found sneakers more to his liking.
Burrows was picture editor at Life Magazine, where she has worked for more than thirty years. Her start at the news publication coincided with Eisenstaedt's end at the storied magazine; he worked for Life Magazine, shortly after arriving in the United State, between 1936 and 1972. During his almost six decades with Life, he contributed more than 2,000 photographs, including those of Ernest Hemingway (1952) and Sophia Loren (1961), which were two of the 90 photos that were on the cover of the magazine.

Eisenstaedt was also known for his straightforward honesty among his intimates, a characteristic that not everyone found appealing, recounts William E. Marks, who shared a ten-year friendship with Eisenstaedt:
In his circle of friends and co-workers, Eisie was known for his blunt honesty. If you offended him or did something that he didn't like, he would tell you so. "It bothers some people when I tell them what I think," said Eisie one day, "but life is too short for me to pretend when someone is being rude or thoughtless. So, I tell them. Sometimes people get offended and don't talk to me. I can't help that."

V-J Day in Times Square: Taken on August 14, 1945, the photograph was published a week later in Life magazine. It also goes by the name, The Kiss. It is easy to understand why this photograph has become an iconic image. It is both hopeful, optimistic and simple, telling both a story of humanity and human relationships,
Photo Credit: Alfred Eisenstaedt, for Life magazine, 1945
Source: Wikipedia
An Iconic Image

It's easy to understand why the image of the sailor grabbing the nurse and kissing her with passion evokes pleasant sensations of joy and happiness. It was the end of war; the enemy was defeated and only positive possibilities and opportunities were ahead in America, the Land of Opportunity. And the centre of it all was New York City and Times Square. You couldn't have asked for a better setting.

Alfred Eisenstaedt was born to Joseph Eisenstaedt and Regina Eisenstaedt (nee Schoen) in Dirschau, West Prussia, then a territory of Germany, on December 6, 1898. He was the eldest of three boys. The family moved to Berlin in 1906, where his family owned a department store. His uncle gave him a camera for his 14th birthday, an Eastman Kodak No. 3 folding camera, but Eisenstaedt quickly lost interest in it.

After Eisenstaedt graduated from the Hohenzollern Gymnasium in Berlin, he was drafted into the German army in 1916, during the height of the First World War. He served in Flanders, Belgium, as a field artillery cannoneer, until he was wounded on April 12, 1918. During an Allied offensive campaign, Eisenstaedt's battalion came under heavy attack. Eisenstaedt was the sole survivor, although he was wounded in both legs when he was hit by shrapnel.

Having survived the war, Eisensteadt returned to university in Germany, which suffered a steep economic decline after the war. Many suffered hardship and losses, including Eisenstaedt's family, who lost their their business:
They lost all of their money and Eisenstaedt was forced to find work. For ten years he sold buttons and belts. In the 1920s, his interest in photography was revived. What caught his attention was a new camera called the Ermanox invented by fellow German, Erich Salomon. The camera was compact and worked with available light. This made it perfect for candid shots. What soon became commonplace, was then a groundbreaking development in the field of photography. In 1925, a friend demonstrated how to enlarge photographs. This was the turning point in his love for picture taking. Eisenstaedt set up his first darkroom in his family's bathroom.
In 1927, Eisensteadt sold his first photo to a German magazine, Der Weltspiegel, of a woman playing tennis, for $3. It was then that Eisenstaedt realized that he could get paid for doing what he loved. Shortly after this defining moment, Eisensteadt made a decision to quit his job as a salesman of buttons and belts. In a couple of years, Eisenstaedt was successful enough to become a full-time photographer in 1929. 

It was also then that he made another decision that would define him and his photography, the use of a small-format camera, the 35mm Leica that became his trademark.
Less than a week later, and just three days after his 31st birthday, Eisenstaedt was on his way to Norway to capture shots of writer Thomas Mann as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. It was his first assignment for the German magazine, Funkstunde. When he purchased a Leica camera, the first 35mm still camera, in 1930 Eisenstaedt found the camera he would work with the rest of his life. The Leica was small. He could take many shots before he had to reload-making it the perfect instrument for this man who loved to take pictures.
His picture-taking, however, was unconventional for the time. For example, when he was assigned to cover a royal wedding in Italy, he took photos of everything except the bride and groom. Background was as important as what was happening in the centre. Some of his most notable photos include a waiter ice skating in St Moritz in 1932; the meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Italy in 1933; and Joseph Goebbels at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933.When Goebbels learned that the photographer was Jewish, his face changed quickly from a warm smile to that famous scowl.

Move to New York City

It became clear that it was becoming increasing difficult for Eisenstaedt to work in Europe. He emigrated to the United States in 1935, to New York City, and to Jackson Heights, Queens where he lived for the most of his life. He quickly adapted to America's informality and became of the first four photographers hired by publisher Henry Luce for the new magazine called Life. Eisenstaedt became a U.S. citizen in 1942, and he married Kathy Kaye, a South African woman whom he met in New York, in 1949. They had no children. Kathy Kaye died of cancer in 1972.

While working for Life, he shot many photos of the famous, including Marlene Dietrich (1938), Winston Churchill (1951) and Marilyn Monroe (1953). But his most famous was that iconic photo at war's end, of elation and spontaneity. Again, we return to Burrows article on him:
He had become well known. Now he became famous. "My tombstone will say, 'Here lies Alfred Eisenstaedt, the man who took that Times Square photograph on V-J Day,'" he chuckled, uncovering new old treasures - some, great photographs of minor events or little-remembered people, made important again by the twists and turns of history. His career had run the entire history of photojournalism. Just as his five-foot-four-inch height had placed his camera and wide-angle lens at the center of his subjects, so had Eisie been in the middle of everything.
Alfred Eisenstaedt died in his bed around midnight in his beloved Menemsha Inn cottage, known as the Pilot House, in Martha's Vineyard, on August 23, 1995. He was ninety-six. He is buried at Mont Hebron Cemetery in Flushing, New York. In The New York Times obituary (August 25, 1995), Charles Hagen writes of Eisenstaedt:
Though he was not considered a great visual stylist, Mr. Eisenstaedt was almost invariably able to communicate the essence of a story in a single image. The photographer's job, he once wrote, is "to find and catch the storytelling moment," and time and again he succeeded.
It shows what a man who started off as a belt and button salesman can achieve when he puts his mind (and talent) to it. In truth, Eisenstaedt was a simple photographer with a great taste for humanity and a respect for individuals.


  1. Nowadays, people would say the sailor was abusing the nurse.

  2. I think you're right. The sailor would think twice before kissing a stranger on the street, no matter the occasion.

  3. Thank you for writing this succinct overview of Eisenstaedt's life. It is a challenge to capture so much with so few words. Your selection of photographs continues to speak to thousands around the world.


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