(Peter Fetterman Gallery, Santa Monica) If the 20th century has had a preeminent master of the candid photograph, it is certainly Alfred Eisenstaedt. Called "the father of photojournalism," Eisenstaedt perfected certain techniques for capturing the spontaneous moment that has given us some of our most enduring photographic images. This exhibit showcases many of Eisenstaedt's most famous photographs along with some newly discovered works.
Born in 1898, Eisenstaedt was fascinated by photography from his youth and began taking pictures at the age of 14 when he was given his first camera, an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera with roll film. In 1927 Eisenstaedt sold his first photograph and at the time had no idea that professional photography even existed. Photojournalism was at its very infancy. Eisenstaedt began his free-lance career for Pacific and Atlantic Photos' Berlin office in 1928. It was taken over by Associated Press in 1931. "Photojournalism had just started," Eisenstaedt has remarked "and I knew very little about photography. It was an adventure, and I was always amazed when anything came out."
Using cumbersome equipment with tripods and glass plate negatives, Eisenstaedt produced many photos on assignment of musicians, writers, and royalty. One famous photograph from 1932 depicts a waiter at the ice rink of the Grand Hotel. "I did one smashing picture," Eisenstaedt has written, "of the skating headwaiter. To be sure the picture was sharp, I put a chair on the ice and asked the waiter to skate by it. I had a Miroflex camera and focused on the chair."
Another very famous Eisenstaedt photograph reveals the opera house La Scala, Milan from 1934. Eisenstaedt was looking for the telling detail to place in the foreground of his image. "Suddenly," he said, "I saw a lovely young society girl sitting next to an empty box. From that box I took another picture, with the girl in the foreground. For years and years this has been one of my prize photographs. Without the girl I would not have had a memorable picture."
By 1935 Eisenstaedt had acquired a Rolleiflex camera and immigrated to America. A year later he became one of the original staff photographers for Life Magazine. By now, he was a master of the candid photograph.
Diminutive in stature, Eisenstaedt stood only slightly over five feet tall. He used a 2 1/4" Rolleiflex "because you can hold a Rolleiflex without raising it to your eye; so they didn't see me taking the pictures." Eisenstaedt was speaking of the time he photographed American soldiers saying farewell to their wives and sweethearts in 1944 on assignment for Life. "I just kept motionless like a statue." he said. "They never saw me clicking away. For the kind of photography I do, one has to be very unobtrusive and to blend in with the crowd."
All photographs © Time, Inc.
VJ Day in Times Square on August 15, 1945 provided the opportunity for Eisenstaedt to photograph the image for which he is possibly most famous. "I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight." he explained. "Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn't make any difference. 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." Eisenstaedt was very gratified and pleased with this enduring image. "People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture."
The photographer, skilled professional that he was, "always behaved like an amateur with little equipment." And as a result we have some of the most spontaneous moments to enjoy as a perennial visual delight. A paramount example is Eisenstaedt's 1951 photo of a drum major. "Another picture I hope to be remembered by" recalled the photographer, "is this one of the drum major rehearsing at the University of Michigan. It was early in the morning, and I saw a little boy running after him, and all the faculty children on the playing field ran after the boy, and I ran after them. This is a completely spontaneous, unstaged picture."
Eisenstaedt had his first one-man exhibition in 1954 at the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. He had many subsequent exhibits and was the recipient of numerous awards, among them the National Medal of the Arts which he received from President George Bush in 1989 in a ceremony on the White House lawn.
The photographer died in 1995 at the age of ninety-six.
The key to Eisenstaedt's genius lay in his humility and humanity. "My style hasn't changed much in all these sixty years," he explained. "I still use, most of the time, existing light and try not to push people around. I have to be as much a diplomat as a photographer. People often don't take me seriously because I carry so little equipment and make so little fuss. 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.'"