OBITUARY: Alfred Eisenstaedt

Val Williams
Thursday 24 August 1995 23:02

"The moral," Alfred Eisenstaedt wrote in 1969, "is that you have to be there." A photojournalist for over 70 years, Eisenstaedt had a capacity for "being there" that seemed infinite.

To T.S. Eliot, posing for him in the Fifties, Eisenstaedt seemed like an acrobat. Marilyn Monroe was perplexed by the speed of his portrait sessions, while President Jack Kennedy was amazed that he made it all look "so easy". Starting out as an amateur in Twenties Berlin, he became Life magazine's top photoreporter. Photojournalist to the famous, he created, in a deceptively offhand style, casual celebrities, a glitterati made accessible across America.

Eisenstaedt was born into the comfortable mercantile middle class of pre-First World War Germany. His father owned a department store and Alfred attended high school at the Hohenzollern Gymnasium, in Berlin. A gift of an Eastman folding No 3 camera for his 14th birthday fuelled his interest in photography. He improvised a darkroom in the family bathroom and printed romantic studies of city snowscapes.

War propelled Eisenstaedt into photojournalism - returning with shrapnel wounds from Flanders in 1918 he found his family impoverished. He worked as a button salesman, and in his spare time became a "fanatical camera bug". When he sold his first photograph - a somnolent, chiaroscuro arrangement of tennis players in the late afternoon sun - to Der Welt Spiegel in 1927, a hobby became a profession.

The mysteries of the darkroom fascinated Eisenstaedt. He saw how the enlarger could change a composition by cropping the image, removing "a hand, a face, a detail". He saved to buy equipment, printing with a wooden enlarger and a set of papier mache trays.

Work was plentiful and his photographs sold well through the Pacific and Atlantic Picture Agency. The virtuoso photojournalist Erich Salomon advised him to buy the lighter, more flexible Ermanox camera. Dressed in identical dinner jackets, with their pockets reinforced to hold glass plates and metal frames, the two photographers often worked side by side, making anarchic, revealing documents of the mercurial world of German politics.

In 1930, Eisenstaedt bought his first Leica. The miniature camera delighted him, made him, at last, "invisible". Stepping lightly around the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva, in 1933, he came face to face with Joseph Goebbels. The resulting photograph, full of malice and menace, became one of photojournalism's most singular icons. He travelled to Paris, and photographed low life in Les Halles, while in St Moritz he made lyrical studies of skating waiters and a decorous haut monde. The Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung bought many of his Thirties photographs, and in London his by- line appeared in the London Illustrated News.

When Eisenstaedt fled from Nazi Germany to the United States in 1935, he found the Americans hard to please. The subtlety that had suited European editors seemed dilettante in New York, and Eisenstaedt's early clients (including Vogue, Harper's and Town and Country) looked for much slicker images. In 1936, the first issue of the picture magazine Life appeared. For Eisenstaedt, on the staff from the beginning, it offered vast new opportunities. He was soon able to combine the stealthy candidness of his early German work with an American directness - the result brought instant acclaim.

Working for Life, "Eisie" became increasingly intrigued by the notions of power and fame. From the Forties to the Seventies, he concentrated his gaze on political superstars like the Kennedys, Nixon and Kissinger and, memorably, Winston Churchill. He was intrigued by performers too; and his photographs of musicians, dancers and actors departed radically from the standard showbiz portrait. He was spellbound by glamour - asked by Life to document depressed Oklahoma in the early Forties, he came back with photos which lent a bizarre gloss even to the dispossessed.

Though Eisenstaedt saw himself as a genial, utterly indefatigable professional, he was an oddly contradictory character. For Life's other star photographer, Margaret Bourke White, he was a "hostess's dream", the perfect weekend guest who "brought everything . . . wine, a choice steak, marinated herring, his favourite phonograph records . . . even a feeding station for the birds". To less exalted Life colleagues he was to be avoided at all costs, demanding "so much care and feeding, so much mopping up and ego nourishment, that the reporter hardly had any time to write captions". One Life researcher remembered him as "sometimes incapable even of looking out of the window to see what the weather was".

Eisenstaedt was a consummate builder of facades; happy to assume disguises, he would dress up with aplomb as Napoleon or Veronica Lake and was the star of Life's Christmas fashion show. Through his autobiographical writings, he constantly remodelled his own legend - of a wised-up Harlequin, an outsider made good.

"Don't be conceited or choosy about your assignments", Eisenstaedt warned aspiring photojournalists; he made almost 2,000 stories for Life - wildlife or factory workers, ballerinas or buildings - everything was a challenge. For curators and critics, however, Eisenstaedt was perhaps too much a showman, and his photographs lacked the cutting edge of much contemporary photojournalism. Exhibitions were sporadic, and not until the Eighties (with big exhibitions in Washington and New York) was his substantial contribution to photography properly recognised.

In 1988, the young English photographer Fi McGhee visited Eisenstaedt. The portrait which she made was revealing - one hand obscuring his face, he seemed a hidden character, vulnerable to an outsider's gaze. In his own later portraits, his vision was increasingly austere; during the Seventies, he produced remarkable studies of an ageing avant-garde - the painter Joseph Beuys a forlorn cowboy, tense in a corner of the Guggenheim Museum, the film director Rainer Werner Fassbinder paunchy and ill-postured.

Alfred Eisenstaedt was photojournalism's clever Fool - Life's court jester, cavorting with serious intent among the burlesque of celebrityland. A tiny man who used his stature to create an aura of childlikeness - moving unnoticed among the denizens of America's own particular Vanity Fair. Through Eisenstaedt's lens, America assumed a solid allure, untarnished by angst or doubts. "No nonsense and great pictures" wrote the motor magnate Henry Ford in Eisie's autograph book. It was almost as if Eisie himself had written the script.

Val Williams

Alfred Eisenstaedt, photographer: born Dierschau, West Prussia 6 December 1898; married 1949 Alma Kathy Kaye (died 1972); died Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts 23 August 1995.

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