Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) was an established photographer when he moved to the United States from Germany in 1935. But the photograph that won him the most fame was the won he took in Times Square on V-J (Victory over Japan) Day in 1945, ending World War II. The picture, that of a sailor in his blue uniform kissing a nurse in her white uniform, with a passion usually reserved for lovers, became synonymous with the mood of celebration the country felt at the war's end. Even those who did not know his name, knew his picture.
Eisenstaedt was almost 47-years-old when he took that picture. He got it as he got many of his pictures-persistence rather than planning. He often noted that he had learned it was the reaction to an event that created the best picture, rather than the event itself. That day in August of 1945, Eisenstaedt was simply walking among the crowd that had gathered on the streets of New York. One of the people he noticed was a sailor who was kissing his way through the crowd. He followed him long enough to see him grab the woman whose outfit in white brought the contrast of the sailor's blue to his keen eye. At that moment, Eisenstaedt snapped the picture.
Self-Taught Hobby Led to Career
Alfred Eisenstaedt was born on December 6, 1898, in Dirschau, West Prussia, then a territory of Germany, and later known as Tczew, Poland. His friends called him, "Eisie."He was the older son of Joseph and Regina Schoen Eisenstaedt. His father owned a department store and made an above-average living for his family. His uncle gave him a camera for his 14th birthday, but Eisenstaedt quickly lost interest in it.
Eisenstaedt graduated from the Hohenzollern Gymnasium in Berlin. He was drafted into the German army in 1916, in the midst of World War I. Eisenstaedt was sent to Flanders following his basic training. There he served as a field artillery cannoneer. His service came to an abrupt end in December of 1917 when he was hit with shrapnel during British shelling in the second Allied western offensive. While Eisenstaedt nearly lost both his legs, the rest of his battalion was killed.
Eisenstaedt returned to Germany following the war and went back to the university. The economic decline of post-war Germany proved the undoing of the Eisenstaedt family business. They lost all of their money and Eisentaedt 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.
Eisenstaedt was on vacation in Czechoslovakia in 1927 when he snapped a picture of a woman playing tennis. The story was told so many times in Eisenstaedt's lifetime that it became as well-known as the legendary photographer himself. This was the first photograph he sold. Der Weltspiegel, a German weekly, bought it for $3. He recalled later that, "I thought. You can get paid for this?" That payment encouraged him to spend more time taking pictures. An article in American Photo, magazine during the summer of 1991 did a feature on Eisenstaedt for their series entitled, Legends: The Secrets of Their Success. In it, Eisenstaedt offered this anecdote about his deciding move. He said, "By this time [following his first sale] I was shooting local cultural events and personalities for the Associated Press [then known as the Pacific and Atlantic Photo agency] in my spare time. Finally, my boss approached me and said, 'Choose which you'd rather do-sell buttons and belts or take pictures.' When I said photography, he said, 'You're digging your own grave."'
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.
It was Eisenstaedt's second free-lance assignment that revealed his true spirit. He was sent to cover a royal wedding in Italy. From Mussolini to the choirboys, Eisenstaedt took pictures of everything-everything except the bride and groom, that is. He later told People magazine that when he returned from the wedding, his "editor was very perplexed, but he couldn't fire me because I was working free-lance." His last major assignment from Germany took him to Ethiopia. When Italy invaded the country later that year, Eisenstaedt's photos were usually the ones that served as background for the news articles.
Life In America
Life magazine featured a story on Eisenstaedt, Little Big Man with a Camera, by Richard Lacayo in September 1990. At five feet four inches, Eisenstaedt could squeeze into a room or a crowd unobserved, because of his size. In that article Eisenstaedt revealed his mood as he saw Germany changing around him and began to realize that the time had come to leave. He was snapping pictures of famed movie star Marlene Dietrich and happy, amusing pictures of waiters on ice, everything that brought him joy in his native surroundings. But then Adolf Hitler appeared, and life in Germany and all over Europe had begun to grow dim. "The old Europe was beautiful," Eisenstaedt said. "There were people interested in art and music. Then these horrible people came to power."
Eisenstaedt's arrival in America coincided with the arrival of a new magazine that was being published by Henry Luce. Eisenstaedt was hired as one his first four staff photographers. The new magazine had a simple title, Life. When Luce saw Eisenstaedt's photos with their casual ease, he liked them immediately. Eisenstaedt's picture of a "stiff-faced cadet at West Point," to use Lacayo's words, graced the cover of Life's second issue.
Eisenstaedt adapted to life in the United States. Like him, the country was simple, unceremonious, and full of unabashed vigor. By 1936, he was taking pictures of Hollywood celebrities. His editor at Life, told him before his first trip that, "The most important thing is not to be in awe of anyone. Remember, you are a king in your own profession." Eisenstaedt said that, "I never forgot those words." His small stature and his personality served him well with his many subjects. He told Vicki Goldberg of New York magazine that "they don't take me too seriously with my little camera. I don't come as a photographer. I come as a friend."
However, he was more than a friend to his subjects. "He was a fan, as well" Lacayo wrote in Time magazine on the occasion of the first Eisenstaedt retrospective exhibit at Manhattan's International Center of Photography. "In retrospect," Lacayo observed, "Eisenstaedt's exile to America starts to look like a stroke of luck. Amid the prevailing cheer of the postwar nation, his upbeat view of things probably found a more ready audience than it would have in the more somber precincts of Europe. His chief mode is celebration."
It was hard to find a celebrity whose picture Eisenstaedt did not take. He never took what might have been called a "critical" picture of anyone-anyone except the famed Nazi propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels at the League of Nations in 1933, before he left Germany. Eisenstaedt recalled that as he clicked his shutter, the Nazi leader looked up with a terribly nasty look. "I had a photograph of him ten seconds before smiling," said Eisenstaedt. He had not been trying to make him look bad. Yet for the German photographer, who was also Jewish, the shot turned out to be an eerie premonition of the days to come.
As for the rest of his subjects, that list included Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedy family, Bob Hope, Bertrand Russell, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt and countless others. Whether photographing a world leader or movie star he made them look no more distant than someone's next-door neighbor. Some had a difficult time taking him seriously for a reason other than his size. It was his simplicity, his fresh-faced sentiment as a photojournalist that often cast shadows on his art. In the April 1988 issue of American Photographer, John Loengard had his own story along those lines. That was the same month that the International Center of Photography in New York gave Eisenstaedt its annual master photographer award. Loengard said "I don't remember when I first saw Alfred Eisenstaedt's picture of the drum major practicing, but it was close to the time it was taken-1950. I don't think I liked it. Too cute. I thought it was too perfect a realization of an expectation. My childhood was never that innocent. Was I too skeptical at too early an age because I lived in New York City? … this picture seemed like something that might illustrate a book about children. The kind bought by parents."
Eisenstaedt had seen a lot of discord and ugliness in his lifetime. If nothing else, he was only 19 when he nearly lost his life. Yet he saw that happiness was every bit the worthy subject that sadness might have been to another photographer. "Even when he returned to Germany in 1979," said Loengard, "Eisie did not use his camera to comment on the past. Instead, he marvelled at the sweet gaiety of a group of Lufthansa stewardesses, at the appearance of a Dalmatian dog in the back of a Porsche, at the rumpled clothes of film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder. 'I don't see Germany with political eyes,' he said. 'I see picture."'
During his lifetime, Eisenstaedt published several books. His first, Witness to our Time, appeared in 1966. In the September 25, 1966 New York Times Book Review, P.G. Fredericks wrote, "Much has been made of Alfred Eisenstaedt as a photographer and rightly so, but what comes across in this book is his strength as a journalist. Over and over, he catches exactly the telling expression on a face or the revealing detail of a situation." Some of the other books that followed were: The Eye of Eisenstaedt, in 1969; Martha's Vineyard, in 1970; and Witness to Nature, in 1971. With John McPhee's text his photographs were published in 1972 in Wimbledon: A Celebration.
Eisenstaedt's personal life included his marriage to Kathy Kaye, a South African woman whom he met and married in 1949. She died in 1972. They had no children. When New York Times, writer Andy Grundberg interviewed for his feature in 1988, near the occasion of Eisenstaedt's ninetieth birthday, he was able to leaf through an entire box of prints and recall the the exact date the photo was taken-month, day, and year. His filing system was something only he could understand. To the observer, it was no system at all. It was then that he quoted George Burns. "He said something like, 'I keep getting older, but never old.' That's exactly how I feel."
Eisenstaedt died at his tiny cottage in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts on August 23, 1995 at the age of 96. The legacy he left behind was not a complicated one-simply stacks and stacks of pictures for people of the next generations to look at. His view of the world was a pretty view. And Eisenstaedt chronicled all of the decades of the 20th century in snapping its most cherished memories. He was just a guy who liked to take pictures.
Newsmakers, edited by Louise Mooney Collins and Frank Castronova, Gale, 1996.
American Photo, July-August, 1991, p. 58.
American Photographer, December 1986, p. 44; April 1988, p. 20.
Life, May 1982, p. 115; December, 1986, p. 8; August 1988, p. 2;September, 1990, p. 84.
New York Times, September 15, 1986, p. 80.
New York Times Book Review, September 25, 1966.
Time, December 2, 1986, p. 7. □
(b. 6 December 1898 in Dirschau [now Tczew], West Prussia [now Poland]; d. 24 August 1995 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts), photographer whose work for Life magazine from its inception in 1936 helped define photojournalism in the United States.
Eisenstaedt was the son of Joseph Eisenstaedt, a successful retailer, and Regina Schoen. His parents moved with their three sons to Wilmersdorf in Berlin in 1906, where Eisenstaedt stayed until his departure from Nazi Germany in 1935. Educated at the Hohenzollern Gymnasium from 1906 to 1912, Eisenstaedt graduated with a baccalaureate the same year an uncle gave him his first camera, an Eastman Kodak No. 3 folding camera. In 1913 he enrolled in the University of Berlin, but his education was interrupted by World War I. Drafted into the German army’s Fifty-fifth Field Artillery Regiment in 1916, Eisenstaedt suffered shrapnel wounds in both legs on 12 April 1918 in an offensive in Dieppe, France. He was one of two survivors from his regiment.
Eisenstaedt began his career as a photojournalist in 1927, when the illustrated weekly Der Weltspeigel purchased his photograph of a tennis match. He soon began freelancing for Pacific and Atlantic Photo (which became the Associated Press in 1931) while working as a button and belt salesman. On 3 December 1929 Pacific and Atlantic hired him to be the primary photographer in its Berlin office. His first professional assignment took him in 1929 to the Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, where he photographed laureate Thomas Mann. For the next six years Eisenstaedt established himself as a documentary photographer adept at capturing significant moments and figures of history. He toured Europe creating portraits of luminaries ranging from Max Schmeling, Marlene Dietrich, and Richard Strauss to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The young Jewish photographer was present on 13 June 1934 in Venice when the two fascist dictators met for the first time. In 1935 the political situation in Europe forced his immigration to New York City where he resided until his death. Upon his arrival in the United States, Eisenstaedt freelanced for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Town and Country. In 1936 the publisher Henry R. Luce hired Eisenstaedt to be one of four photographers to staff his new Magazine X. Upon publication eight months later Eisenstaedt shared the masthead of the now titled Life with photographers Margaret Bourke-White, Thomas McAvoy, and Peter Stackpole. Of the group, Eisenstaedt wrote, “we were no-nonsense people, part of an elite group, pioneers of photojournalism in America.” Not yet possessing U.S. citizenship, Eisenstaedt, now called “Eisie,” was obliged to spend the war years on the home front. The task of uplifting American spirits fit the outgoing, sunny disposition of the photographer. Even after being naturalized in 1942, Eisenstaedt continued to favor examinations of life in the United States rather than events abroad. In the more than eighty-five covers Eisenstaedt shot for Life, Americans went to school, college, ski slopes, tennis courts, the movies, and to war.
His most famous photograph, “V.J. Day at Times Square, New York City, August 14, 1945,” showed Americans celebrating the end of the war. The image of a sailor kissing a young nurse in a full embrace displays the exuberant catharsis of the moment while presenting a thesis on Eisenstaedt’s approach to photojournalism. He captured candid moments that displayed the benevolence of humanity. Among the Life photographers, Eisie was known as an “undershooter.” It took him only four shots to create “V.J. Day at Times Square.” Not a formal stylist like his friend Bourke-White, Eisenstaedt created photographs that reveal as little of the hand and personality of the artist as was possible. “There is no Eisenstaedt picture,” he explained.
In 1949 Eisenstaedt married a young South African, Alma Kathy Kaye; she lived with her husband until her death in 1972. The couple had no children. Eisenstaedt’s sister-in-law, Lucy (Lulu) Kaye, was his companion from 1972 until his death. In his final years, Lulu helped him navigate the few blocks to the office in the Time-Life Building to which he reported daily.
Eisenstaedt’s portraits after World War II depict the lives of notables from the Kennedys to the queen of England, from Charlie Chaplin to Ernest Hemmingway. His camera also caught the pleasures, and on occasion the pain, of less distinguished people; children playing at the beach or gasping at a puppet show, street vendors, and beggars all appear in his work. In 1966 Eisenstaedt published the first of his thirteen books, Witness to Our Time, a collection of photos from his career in photojournalism. In his third and fourth books, Martha’s Vineyard (1970) and Witness to Nature (1971), Eisenstaedt revealed an interest in life apart from paparazzi and current events.
In 1972 Life stopped publication and, although Eisenstaedt was retained by Time, Inc., he worked only intermittently for Life when it began publishing again in 1978. Key publications from the period include Eisenstaedt’s Guide to Photography (1978); Eisenstaedt: Germany (1980), an album pairing photographs taken before he left Germany with ones taken on his first return in 1979; Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt (1985); and Eisenstaedt: Remembrances (1990), a retrospective volume dedicated to his late wife. In his work after 1932 Eisenstaedt favored Leica or Nikon 35mm cameras for their flexibility.
Eisenstaedt received numerous honors and awards. The first came in 1951 when the Encyclopaedia Britannica Yearbook named him “Photographer of the Year.” The International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, gave the photographer his first one-person exhibition in 1954. Eisenstaedt was named one of the world’s ten great photographers in an international poll conducted by Popular Photography in 1968. In 1986 the International Center of Photography mounted a retrospective exhibition entitled “Eisie at 88.” Two years later he received the Presidential Medal of Arts and the International Center of Photography Master of Photography Award. In 1997 Life established the Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards of Magazine Photography, which are administered by the Columbia University School of Journalism.
Eisenstaedt died of a heart attack while on Martha’s Vineyard, a favorite vacation spot of the artist since the 1930s. He is buried in Mount Hebron Cemetery in the borough of Queens in New York City.
Questioned about the striking lack of commentary in his photography, particularly his German work, Eisenstaedt explained, “I don’t see Germany with political eyes. I see pictures.” Although his posture of neutrality dates his art, Eisenstaedt’s often startling success at absenting himself from his work has left us with images that transcribed the voices of another age with considerable clarity. He possessed a cunning ability to capture fleeting moments of genuine feeling and a keen sense of anecdote. In the best and also the most fallible sense, Eisenstaedt’s photographs are eminently human.
No biography exists of Eisenstaedt, although his own publications often include autobiographical notes and essays. Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt is the most complete of these. The 1980 reprinting of Witness to Our Time with an essay by Henry R. Luce is of particular interest. An interview with the photographer, “A Conversation with Alfred Eisenstaedt,” appeared in Print 33 (July-Aug. 1979): 33-38, 104. Shorter interviews published in the British Journal of Photography include Tom Ang, “Eisenstaedt in London,” 133 (28 Feb. 1986): 244-247, and Michael Hallett, “A Lifetime with Life,” 139 (28 May 1992): 10-11. See also the critical biographical essay by James Traub, “A Wonderful life,” American Photographer 17 (Dec. 1986): 45-59. An obituary is in the New York Times and Washington Post (both 25 Aug. 1995).
Peter R. Kalb
EISENSTAEDT, ALFRED (1898–1995), photographer. Born in Dirschau, West Prussia (now Tczew, Poland), Eisenstaedt was the pre-eminent photojournalist of his time, whose pioneering images for Life magazine helped define American photojournalism. Over a career that lasted more than 50 years, Eisenstaedt became famous as the quintessential Life photographer, producing more than 2,500 picture stories and 90 covers for the magazine. His most famous photograph, of an exuberant American sailor kissing a nurse in a dance-like dip in Times Square on v-j Day, August 14, 1945, summed up the euphoria many Americans felt as the war came to a close. It is the most widely reproduced of the magazine's millions of photographs. Another of his best-known images shows Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, in 1933, glaring at the camera. "Here are the eyes of hate," the photographer later wrote.
When Alfred was eight, his father, a merchant, moved the family to Berlin, and they remained there until Hitler came to power. At 17, Alfred was drafted into the German army and served on the Flanders front, where he was wounded in both legs. Sent home, he recuperated for a year before he could walk unaided. He used the time to visit museums and study light and composition. Although he became a belt and button salesman, he saved his money and bought photographic equipment. In 1927, while vacationing with his parents in Czechoslovakia, he took a photograph of a woman playing tennis. He was on a hillside 50 yards away, and the photo captured the long shadow the woman cast on the court. He sold it to Der Welt Spiegel for about $12.
By the age of 31, he became a full-time photographer, working for Pacific and Atlantic Photos, which became the Associated Press. At the time he began working with the innovative Leica 35 mm. camera, which had been invented four years earlier. His assignments included portraits of statesmen and famous artists. By 1933 he was sent to Italy to shoot the first meeting of Hitler and Mussolini. Two years after Hitler took power, Eisenstaedt immigrated to the United States, where he was soon hired with three other photographers, including Margaret *Bourke-White, to be the original photographers for the new Life magazine. The first issue carried five pages of Eisenstaedt's pictures. He became known for his ability to bring back visually striking pictures from almost any assignment. Among the many celebrities he photographed were Churchill, John F. Kennedy, Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, George Bernard Shaw, and a smoldering Marlene Dietrich in top hat and tails. His mastery of the Leica allowed him to capture his subjects in unguarded moments, creating a sense of intimacy. In a 1947 picture, for example, the physicist J. Robert *Oppenheimer puffs on a cigarette as he stands in front of a blackboard covered with mathematical formulas.
Eisenstaedt became an American citizen in 1942 and traveled overseas to document the effects of the war. He received many awards and honors, including the Presidential Medal of Arts and the Master of Photography Award, given by the International Center of Photography. He continued to work until shortly before his death. In 1993 he photographed President Clinton, his wife, and their daughter on Martha's Vineyard, Mass.
He was the subject of many exhibitions and was the author of many books, including Witness to Our Time (1966), The Eye of Eisenstaedt (1969), Eisenstaedt's Guide to Photography (1978), and Eisenstaedt: Germany (1981). At age 81 he returned to Germany for the first time for an exhibition of pictures he had taken there in the 1920s and 1930s. Things in Germany seemed different, he said, from when he left. "You couldn't call it prettier, but maybe more relaxed."
[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]