Photography history ‘Follow Friday’: E for Eisenstadt

Alfred Eisenstadt was a photographer I was required to study as part of my history of photography classes at college. I was already very aware of his work, through the photo that – perhaps – everyone knows him for: a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on VJ-Day, 1945. I’d first found that shot through my avid consumption of WW2 history and then went on to read-up on the photographer who’d taken it.

Growing up surrounded by old black and white family snaps and the many prints my father and mother had taken together during the early years of their marriage [my mum worked at one of Boot’s the Chemist’s first photographic counters, in Canterbury and had been a model for them too], I had a thirst for monochrome. I still do. Eisenstadt was instrumental in cementing that and I was always interested by a man who was part of the very beginning’s of Life magazine, copies of which I had as a boy going back to those early issues in the mid-1930s.

Eisenstadt had arrived in the USA on a Zeppelin, with a portfolio brimming with shots of dictators, socialites and film-stars. He’d go on to shoot perhaps the most defining moment of WW2 – that kiss which defined the public’s celebration of the allied victory over Japan.

Here’s a little of his story and, below, a few of the shots of his which I most like…..


Alfred Eisenstaedt was born December 6, 1898, in Dirschau, West Prussia (now part of Poland), one of three sons of Regina and Joseph Eisenstaedt, a merchant. The family moved to Berlin when Alfred was eight, and remained there until Hitler came to power. He may well have followed in his father’s footsteps, were it not for an uncle who, when Eisenstaedt was 14, gave the boy an Eastman Kodak no. 3 folding camera in 1912.

Interrupting his studies at the University of Berlin, Eisenstaedt was drafted into the German army in 1916 during World War I, serving at the front until April 1918, when gunfire crippled both his legs. During the year-long recovery, he became fascinated by the local art museums, studying the paintings of the masters.

Although he became a belt-and-button salesman by trade in 1922, with the money he was able to save, he bought photographic equipment. Developing the pictures in his bathroom, Eisenstaedt had yet to learn there was such a thing as an enlarger.

In 1927, while vacationing with his parents in Czechoslovakia, he photographed a woman playing tennis. Taken from a hillside 50 yards away, the photo captured the long shadow the woman cast on the tennis court.

He wrote:

I took one picture of the scene with a Zeiss Ideal Camera, 9  12 with glass plates. I was rather satisfied when I showed it to a friend of mine. ‘Why don’t you enlarge it?’ he asked. And he showed me a contraption of a wooden box with a frosted light bulb inside attached to a 9  12 camera, same as mine….When I saw that one could enlarge and eliminate unnecessary details, the photo bug bit me and I saw enormous possibilities. 

(Eisenstaedt 1985)

Those possibilities included making a living with his pictures. In 1927, Eisenstaedt sold his first photograph of that tennis player to Der Weltspiegel for three marks, about 12 dollars at the time. By age 31, in 1929 he had quit the belt-and-button business to become a full time photographer. In doing so, he would come to define the profession. As a pioneer in his field, Eisenstaedt had few rules to follow. He looked to the work of Martin Munkasci and Dr. Erich Salomon, with whom he had the opportunity to work.

As a freelancer Eisenstaedt worked for Pacific and Atlantic Photos Berlin office in 1928, which would become part of the Associated Press in 1931. At that time Eisenstaedt began working with the innovative Leica 35 mm camera, which had been developed four years prior. His assignments included portraits of statesmen and famous artists, as well as social events such as the winter season in St. Moritz. In 1933, he was sent to Italy to shoot the first meeting of fascist leaders Hitler and Mussolini. His aggressive yet invisible style of working allowed him to come within arm’s reach of the two dictators.

Despite his success in Europe, Eisenstaedt had heard that the greatest opportunity for photojournalists was now in the United States. Two years after Hitler took power, Eisenstaedt immigrated to America in 1935. He sailed from Le Havre on the lle de France, arriving in New York at the end of November, with a portfolio overflowing with photographs of European politicians, entertainers, and royalty including Hitler, Mussolini, Marlene Dietrich, Gloria Swanson, Bernard Shaw, Charlie Chaplin, Arturo Toscanini, and Sergei Rachmaninoff. Among the impressive variety of photographs in his portfolio was a photo essay Eisenstaedt had made aboard the Graf Zeppelin in 1933, which impressed the editor most.

In New York he was soon hired with three other photographers—Margaret Bourke-White, Thomas McAvoy, and Peter Stackpole—by Time magazine founder Henry Luce, for a secret start-up known only as PROJECT X. After six months of testing the mystery venture, it premiered as Life magazine on November 23, 1936.

[extracts from the Focal Encycopaedia of the 20th Century and from The Encyclopaedia of 20th Century Photography, edited by Lyn Warren]



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