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.
Further Reading on Alfred Eisenstaedt
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.