Alfred Eisenstaedt Photos Defying Time

Alfred Eisenstaedt Photos Defying Time  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

The consummate observer.  A man silently studying his surroundings. A man also holding a camera.

I enjoy traveling and recording far-away places and people with my camera. But I also find it wonderfully rewarding to see what I can discover outside my own window. You only need to study the scene with the eyes of a photographer.
— Alfred Eisenstaedt

At seemingly the perfect moment photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt used his camera and captured the exact subject for which he waited.  

Mostly simple and uncomplicated, his photographs defy time.  Decades later they look like they were taken yesterday.

He was a master at finding the storytelling moment.

Alfred was one of Life magazines original photographers. After some 2,500 picture stories his legacy as one of the major photojournalists of his era was well established.  He did more than 90 Life covers. 

“If most editorial stories were photographed just as they are, editors would end up throwing most in the waste basket,” he said.  “You have to work hard at making an editorial picture. You need to re-stage things, rearrange things so that they work for the story, with truth and without lying.”  

No small task.  Alfred said sometimes people didn’t take him seriously because he didn’t carry around a lot of camera equipment.  His motto was simplicity. 

When he started out he didn’t even own an exposure meter because they didn’t exist. He guessed.  He said young people know more about modern cameras and equipment than he does, but so what.  Without an “eye” the best camera in the world is pretty useless.

It wasn’t about technique for Alfred.  It was about experimentation and testing over and over. Here is what he said about photographers working during his era. 

“Today’s photographers think differently,” he said. “Many can’t see real light anymore…If you have the eyes to see it, the nuances of light are already there on the subject’s face. If your thinking is confined to strobe light sources, your palette becomes very mean – which is the reason I photograph only in available light.” 

Alfred moved to the Unites States from Germany in 1935 as an already established photographer. At the same time a new magazine Life was starting up and he was hired as one of the first four photographers. The others were Margaret Bourke-White, Thomas McAvoy and Peter Stackpole.  

By the next year Alfred was photographing celebrities.  He said he never forgot what his editor told him.

“The most important thing is not to be in awe of anyone. Remember, you are a king in your own profession.”

That meant a great deal to Alfred because he was a little guy, someone people could easily dismiss. He didn’t look intimidating and people relaxed around him. 

His celebrity list included the Kennedy Family, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Hope, Winston Churchill, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charlie Chaplin, George Bernard Shaw, Marlene Dietrich, President Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton and their daughter, Chelsea. 

“I enjoy traveling and recording far-away places and people with my camera. But I also find it wonderfully rewarding to see what I can discover outside my own window. You only need to study the scene with the eyes of a photographer,” he said.

On Oct. 9, a selection of Albert Eisenstaedt photos went on the block at Swann Auction Galleries.

Alfred Eisenstaedt

Albert Einstein; silver print; 1948; 11 ¾ inches by 9 inches; $2,375.

Winston Churchill; silver print; 1951; 13 ½ inches by 10 ½ inches;  $3,750.

Ballet Master of the Opera de Paris and his students; silver print; 1930; 13 ½ inches by 18 inches;  $6,000.

Drum Major for Univ. of Michigan marching band with admiring children; silver print; 1951;  $10,625.

Marilyn Monroe; silver print; 1953; 12 ½ inches by 9 ½ inches;  $16,900.

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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