“I have to be as much diplomat as a photographer.” — Alfred Eisenstaedt
The Associated Press hired Alfred Eisenstaedt in 1929 to work for them as a professional photographer out of their office in Germany. Before World War II, he photographed notables including fascists Adolph Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Joseph Goebbels. By 1935 he had moved to New York carrying with him his notoriety as a “photographer extraordinaire” earned early on in Europe. He was hired by Time founder Henry Luce as one of the four original Life staff photographers including Robert Capa and Margaret Bourke-White. His tenure at Life continued until 1972. There, he worked on 2,500 stories and created over 90 cover photos for Life. He also worked for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Town & Country as well as many other magazines.
During his time, photojournalism, the Eisenstaedt way, evolved toward smaller format 35mm cameras most notably in his case the Leica. He took full advantage of the camera’s light weight, small size and interchangeable lenses to put his subjects at ease. The versatile camera helped him put his subjects at ease. He used a lot of natural light to tell his visual stories. His fellow photographers were using bulky, and somewhat clumsy 4×5″ cameras with flashbulbs to illuminate their scenes. His handheld Leicas allowed him to evolve a human interest style that few have managed to emulate to his degree of expertise.
Eisenstaedt, “Eisie” to his friends, learned how to work with even the most difficult subjects of his camera. British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden who very much disliked being photographed, referred to Eisenstaedt as “the gentle executioner.” British Prime Minister Winston Churchill told him exactly where to place his camera to get a good picture. Pulitzer Prize author Ernest Hemmingway flew into a rage, tore his own shirt into shards then threatened to throw Eisenstaedt off of the boat.
At age 94, in 1993, Eisie made a family portrait of Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton at the Granary Gallery on Martha’s Vinyard. He died at midnight at his much loved Menemsha Inn cottage — The Pilot House — at 96 years old.
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