Alfred Eisenstaedt

The Affable Observer:  An Interview with Photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt

By Janis Bultman

Published in Darkroom Photography, March/April 1986 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Alfred Eisenstaedt
Alfred Eisenstaedt. The Tony Spina Collection: Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University.

Nice and easy has always been photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt’s style. For almost forty years, he traveled the world for Life magazine, collecting photographs (and autographs) of the famous and powerful. This made him famous, too. However, there’s much more to his life than Life.

Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995) gets up at five o’clock every morning. He eats breakfast, and then walks to the corner newsstand, where he buys a copy of the New York Times. Even before it became his business, Eisenstaedt was drawn to current events, be they political, cultural, or scientific. “I am interested in everything—even whether or not a cockroach has hair on its head,” he laughs.

By 9:30, Eisenstaedt is in his office, a windowless warren just a stone’s throw from the Life photo lab on the 28th floor of Manhattan’s Time & Life Building. His office walls and a good portion of the floor are taken up by industrial shelving crammed with yellow Kodak boxes full of his prints.

Wherever there’s space, Eisenstaedt has hung some of the photographs he likes best. Among them are several large prints of Marlene Dietrich, Sophia Loren—one of his favorite subjects—and his late wife Kathy, a woman Eisenstaedt says kept their marriage happy by her adherence to the simple motto, “First Life, then wife.” High above a tiny bulletin board layered with scraps of paper hangs the American Society of Magazine Photographers’ Lifetime Achievement Award, given to him in 1978 when he was 79.

Now 87, Eisenstaedt says his long, happy career and a lifetime of good habits are responsible for his durability and productivity. He doesn’t drink or smoke. Until sciatica made it painful, he exercised regularly, carrying a pedometer with him on his frequent travels.

But he has one regret: “It’s only too bad that I wasn’t born fifty years later. Today, everything is done with so much technique. In my time, technique didn’t matter. If I was younger, then I would have different cameras, different outfits—strobes, cables, assistants. I never worked with an assistant. I had a very good time, looking back, but today’s photographers are terrific—don’t you think so?

If Eisenstaedt envies the careers of modern photographers, many are just as envious of his. He worked for years as an Associated Press photographer in pre-World War II Europe, but the cynosure of his career was his decades at Life. Along with Margaret Bourke-White, Peter Stackpole, and Tom McAvoy, Eisenstaedt was one of Life’s original staff of photographers, and he stayed with Life from the magazine’s first issue in 1936 until the influential weekly ceased publication in 1972. Even after that, he kept his office at Time Incorporated, and his name went back on Life’s masthead when it started up again as a monthly in 1978.

Life’s influence was tremendous. When it began publication on the tail end of the depression, radio, newspapers, and newsreels had piqued people’s curiosity about the world at a time when travel was prohibitive for all but the very rich and very adventurous. As would television decades later, Life allowed its readers to become armchair voyeurs and adventurers. Millions of Americans and Europeans fanned copies of the big picture weekly across their coffee tables and picked it up again and again to look at its photographs of the mighty and meek, the fortunate and the unfortunate, politicians, soldiers, movie stars, scientists, socialites, and shack dwellers. It shaped its readers’ opinions on a score of topics, and it took this responsibility very seriously. “We thought we ran the world,” remembers one editor. When Ed Sullivan invited Life’s publisher, Henry Luce, onto his show and asked him to explain Life’s philosophy, Luce’s answer sounded like a pledge: “We believe that human life has a purpose, and our job is to show individual people and nations working out that purpose in freedom and justice for all.”

The operative word was show; it was photographs more than words that gave Life its power. Among working photographers, a Life assignment, or better yet, a slot on staff, was highly coveted. Those who made it knew they’d arrived at the inner sanctum of the only club worth joining. There were photojournalists and there were Life Photographers. “We were an elite corps,” says Eisenstaedt.

Life’s photographers went everywhere and saw everything. “I was traveling all the time,” remembers Eisenstaedt. “From one assignment to another. I came home sometimes at 1 a.m., but I didn’t stay at home. I went to Life. Always something else coming up—all the time. I did more than 2,500 assignments and 92 covers. Once, I had three covers in a month.”

Henry Luce, a man given to definitive pronouncements, often called Eisenstaedt the father of photojournalism. Eisenstaedt more accurately calls himself the son. However much Luce would have liked to believe that Life was the first picture magazine worth counting, photojournalism was in fact born in Europe, long before Life, and enjoyed a period of exceptional prosperity in Germany as Eisenstaedt was growing up.

Alfred Eisenstaedt was born in Dirschau, West Prussia (now part of Poland), on December 6, 1898. When he was seven, his father sold the department store he owned there, and moved his family to Berlin.

On Eisenstaedt’s fourteenth birthday, his uncle gave him his first camera, an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera No. 3, loaded with roll film. He immediately took to his new hobby: “I took lots of pictures of unimportant things.”

In 1916, when Eisenstaedt was seventeen, he set aside his camera and his formal education when he was drafted into the German army. One of the Kindersoldaten who were recruited as Germany’s reserves were depleted, Eisenstaedt served on the Western Front. His tour ended when on April 12, 1918, during a bombardment 125 miles from Verdun, he was hit in both knees with shrapnel from a British artillery shell. He remembers the moment to the minute: 4:10 p.m. He was the only survivor in his battery.

Eisenstaedt had seen all he wanted of war. Later, many of his colleagues at Life, notably Carl Mydans and W. Eugene Smith, built their reputations in part on their war reportage. For a time, Life ran a school for combat photographers. But, while Eisenstaedt has gone to unusual, even dangerous lengths to obtain some of his photographs—once lashing himself to the flying bridge of a ship during a hurricane to record the storm’s fury—for the most part he steered clear of manmade danger and never again ventured onto a battlefield.

Back in Berlin, his knees on the mend, Eisenstaedt took a job as a salesman of belts and buttons. “A very bad one,” he says. For the next eight years, this was his primary occupation, but photography filled his leisure time.

One of the pictures that hang in Eisenstaedt’s office is of a lone tennis player, her racket drawn back preparatory to serving. Except for the vague gray folds of her tunic, she’s a softly defined silhouette in the photo’s upper right hand quadrant. Her shadow stretches long to the lower left corner. The salt and pepper textures of the tennis court fill the rest of the print.

Eisenstaedt took this photograph in 1926. He made a contact print and showed it to a friend “who also dabbled in photography a little bit.” His friend suggested he enlarge it. “I said, ‘What’s enlarging? I’ve never heard of enlarging.’ I went to his home and he showed me a contraption mounted on a wall—a wooden box with a frosted bulb inside. This opened my eyes to the possibilities of photography.”

The technology for commercially printing large quantities of photographs was available as early as the 1850s, but it wasn’t until the halftone process was perfected in 1880 that photographs and type could be printed together economically. At the same time, the invention of small handheld cameras made photography an efficient and effective newsgathering tool. Photographs began to appear with increasing regularity in newspapers, especially in Sunday supplements. Germany was the leader in the new form of communication that became known as photojournalism. In his History of Photography, Beaumont Newhall reports that by 1930, there were more illustrated magazines in Germany than anywhere else in the world, with combined circulations of five million per week and twenty million readers.

Eisenstaedt enlarged the photograph of the tennis player and sold it to the weekly magazine Der Welt Spiegel for three marks, or about twelve dollars. A few weeks later, he sold a second photograph to the same magazine. Its editor suggested that he study the work of Erich Salomon, one of the period’s most famous photojournalists. Eisenstaedt already knew Salomon’s photography. “I admired him tremendously,” he writes in Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt. “He was like a god to me. I knew that Salomon used an Ermanox camera, and I bought one too. After that, I was not interested in anything else. I was a fanatic about photography. I still am.”

On December 3, 1929, at the age of thirty, Eisenstaedt said goodbye to the belt and button business and became a fulltime photographer for Pacific and Atlantic Photos (which became the Associated Press in 1931), for whom he’d already been freelancing. He had the ambivalent blessings of his boss, who knew Eisenstaedt’s talents did not lie in sales, but doubted that a decent living could be made with a camera. “The idea of photography for a living was as new as flying,” Eisenstaedt remembers.

Less than a week later, he was on his way to Stockholm to photograph Thomas Mann accepting the Nobel Prize for literature. After that, he traveled throughout England and Europe, dragging hundreds of pounds of heavy glass plates for the big cameras favored by his new employers and wearing suits and formal clothing specially reinforced to accommodate the plates and their steel holders. Photojournalism was not yet a truly portable profession, nor could photojournalists get away with the casual attire of today.

The smaller Ermanox eventually changed Eisenstaedt’s style “It started me on a more candid kind of photography.” He photographed movie stars, musicians, statesmen, and ordinary people at work and at play. “I was elated because I was with so many people who were famous in the world’s eyes. Very few people did what I did at the time. My photographs appeared everywhere because I was with the Associated Press, and they sold to every magazine.”

In 1932, Eisenstaedt began traveling with a 6x9cm Miroflex and the 35mm Leica he would favor for the rest of his career. He went to St. Moritz to photograph high society and was a presence at the many political conferences held during the post war years as politicians met to repair the damage of World War I. At Geneva in 1933, Eisenstaedt caught Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, as he glared suspiciously at the camera. Later, Goebbels signed Eisenstaedt’s autograph book. In 1934, after being arrested and held for several hours until his AP credentials were verified, he photographed Hitler’s first meeting with Mussolini. At President von Hindenberg’s funeral, he photographed Hitler wearing the uniform of the Fuhrer for the first time.

With Hitler’s supremacy came the demise of German photojournalism. One by one the German picture presses closed down. Then, as now, Eisenstaedt says he was apolitical, and if he objected to anything about a subject, he ignored it in favor of objectivity. This is probably why by 1935 he was one of two photographers with official permission to photograph in Germany. But when the Berlin Bureau of the Associated Press disbanded, Eisenstaedt, like many of his compatriots, emigrated to the United States.

Still employed by the Associated Press, Eisenstaedt did not want for work. He photographed for Town & Country, tried his hand at a few fashion assignments, and contributed to the dummies of an experimental Time publication called “Project X.” “They saw my pictures and said, ‘This is the kind of photography we want.’” On November 23, 1936, the mysterious Project X was revealed to the public as Life magazine, and Eisenstaedt began his extended tenure there.

“At Life, everybody was an individualist. You could do anything you wanted to do. You had no timetable. You could stay out as long as you needed, but I always tried to do it as fast as possible because I wanted to do another assignment. I was a fanatic. I was always jumping from one assignment to another. The more I worked, the happier I felt.”

Eisenstaedt claimed the cover of the second issue of Life with a story about West Point. By now, he was using the Leica almost exclusively and a Rolleiflex intermittently. He did photo essays on universities and hospitals and covered the home front during World War II, beginning with a series of heart-wrenching pictures of women taking leave of their men at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station and culminating with the famous VJ-Day shot of a jubilant sailor smooching a passing nurse in Times Square.

But as time passed, Eisenstaedt eased away from photographing places and events. The photography of the famous because his specialty. In this role, Eisenstaedt adhered to the Golden Rule. A congenial man who always asks for an autograph at the end of a session, Eisenstaedt has never seen any point in exploiting his subjects’ human frailties. The pleasant countenances he submitted to Life are proof of his belief that you don’t repay with unkindness the kindness of a celebrity who finds time for a photographer in a busy schedule.

Everyone asks Eisenstaedt if he was ever intimidated by the fame of his subjects. Eisenstaedt likes to answer with advice given to him by Life photo editor Wilson Hicks when he assigned him to Hollywood—even though this took place well into his career. “He said, ‘Alfred, don’t be intimidated by all these beauty queens. You are a king in your profession. You’re very good.’ And this has stuck with me.”

“I treat everybody normally,” he says. “When you meet famous and important people they don’t like to be treated like you look in awe of them.” Eisenstaedt knows this firsthand, because there came a time when he was a celebrity in his own right and he experienced adulation. “I hate it,” he says. “What does a photographer compare to a composer, a painter, a surgeon? Nothing. People think I conquered the world. No. I’m just a photographer, pure and simple. I admire all the greats who have done so much for the world. But a photographer? What does he do?”

Eisenstaedt keeps up an easy banter throughout photo sessions to set his subjects at ease and being widely read he can find common ground for a conversation with anyone from movie stars to scientists to statespersons. He steers clear of the controversial, however. “To photograph all these famous people, I have to be more diplomat than photographer. And then it helps that I have very little equipment. I have sometimes one or two lamps along and work alone. Very often people say, ‘Are you finished already?’ I was always known as an under shooter.”

Eisenstaedt’s powers of diplomacy were stretched to the limit when he met Ernest Hemingway in 1952, an assignment he names unfailingly as his most difficult. “Papa” Hemingway was living in Havana. He greeted Eisenstaedt with a gin and tonic in hand, wearing only a pair of frayed and faded shorts. From the start, Hemingway was irascible. He complained about Life’s fee of $40,000, saying it was too low. He became enraged when Eisenstaedt asked him to put on a shirt, demanding to know why he should cover himself when so many famous actresses had loved his body just the way it was. Eisenstaedt says he responded by matching machismo with machismo. He pulled up his sleeve and asked Hemingway for a very sharp pocketknife, boasting that he would bounce it off his biceps. ‘Look Mary, he’s a little Papa,” Hemingway said to his wife. Eventually, he put on his shirt.

For all his difficulties with Hemingway—and there were more in ensuing days—Eisenstaedt returned to photograph him again the following year. “I have no trouble going back to people I have photographed because I am never obnoxious,” he says.

One favorite subject he photographed many times over the years was Sophia Loren, of whom he did five of his ninety-two Life covers. She always asked for approval and never rejected a shot. He remembers the first time he photographed her: “My editor called me and said, ‘Eisie, we have a very good assignment for you, a very interesting assignment.’ When he told me what it was, I said, ‘I’ll be ready in fifteen minutes.’ The next day I left for Rome. We clicked right away. That’s most important. I was for years a part of the family.”

Eisenstaedt was an unabashed fan. Early in his career, an AP writer with whom he was working suggested that he collect the signatures of his famous subjects, and since then, he has filled a score of autograph books with their scribbles. He locates one of the more recent books among his piles of papers. There are the marks of Norman Rockwell, Pierre Trudeau, Saul Bellow, Jacques Henri-Lartigue, Anna Freud, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Leni Riefenstahl, Glenn Gould, and Yousuf Karsh. Most also have scrawled their thanks for a pleasant photo session.

As much as he enjoyed photographing celebrities, Eisenstaedt’s favorite assignments were few and far between: “Portraiture and news photography are fine, but I always liked nature assignments best. But the editors told me, ‘There are many people who can do nature, but there are very few who can do what you do.’ And so I was stuck with people.”

Eisenstaedt’s constant travels and his workaholism precluded serious romantic attachments until he met Alma Kathy Kaye in 1947. Kathy, a product of a traditional English upbringing in colonial Capetown, South Africa, worked for her sister, who owned a candy store on Fifth Avenue. They courted for a year and nine months and were married in 1949 when Eisenstaedt was fifty.

Eisenstaedt and his bride spent their wedding night riding the rails on the Twentieth Century Limited, en route to Hollywood. When they arrived, they went from the train directly to the set of Gene Kelly’s “On the Town.” “It was fantastic for my wife,” says Eisenstaedt. “Can you imagine? She met Gregory Peck, Robert Taylor—everybody!” The Eisenstaedts were in Hollywood for seven weeks while he photographed movie stars for Life. “That was our honeymoon,” he says, adding without regret, “They never published one picture.”

Eisenstaedt continued to travel and work, with his wife’s understanding and encouragement. “She was a great help to me spiritually. She gave me peace of mind,” he says. And so 1972 was doubly tragic for Eisenstaedt. On December 8, two days after his 73rd birthday, Life discontinued publication. “We though the end of the world had come. It was very bad.” That year too, after 22 years of marriage, Kathy died.

Eisenstaedt kept busy. He worked for other Time publications and obtained an agent. He headed a photo expedition to Brazil—“a horrible experience”—and worked for the British Tourist Authority. From 1969 to 1976, he published a book a year, and every other year thereafter. In1979, he returned to Germany to take a second look at some of the sites he’d photographed in the Thirties.

In 1978, Life was revitalized, but Eisenstaedt says, “I don’t work so much for the new Life. I don’t work so much anymore lately. Travel is a little difficult for me.”

Nonetheless, in 1985, the latest of his eleven books of photography, Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt, was published, and in 1986, “Eisenstaedt and company,” a major exhibition with over ninety photographs—many of them recent—opened in London. Clearly, for Eisenstaedt, working a little and working a lot are relative.

© 1986, 2015, 2018 Janis Bultman

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