by Mark Moran
Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt straddled a porous boundary between art and journalism, while bridging the understated, black-and-white aesthetic of the pre- and post-World War II generations, and the super-heated, pop celebrity-photojournalism of the baby boomers. For those over the age of, say, 55, at least a few of the photographs on exhibit at the Adirondack House of The Hillwood Estate will seem warmly familiar, even if Eisenstaedt’s name is a revelation. For younger types, they will offer a glimpse at a post-war America – the America built by “the greatest generation” – rapidly receding.
“Mid-Century Master: The Photography of Alfred Eisenstaedt,” is a dense, compact exhibit – you can absorb it in an hour and-a-few – but it is richly informative, especially for those (like me) unfamiliar with Eisenstaedt’s story. Born into a Jewish family in what is now Poland, Eisenstaedt was given an Eastman Kodak folding camera as a boy; a passion was born. After fighting on the German side in World War I, he found his niche capturing on film many of the most important cultural and athletic events of Weimar Germany for the magazine, Der Spiegel.
He fled Europe and the Nazis in 1935 for New York, where his record earned him the attention of Henry Luce, who hired him to shoot for Life Magazine. Eisenstaedt’s cover photos for the magazine fill an entire wall of the exhibit. Almost all of Eisenstaedt’s photos – at least almost all of those on display – were black and white, taken with a German-made Leica camera. I was pleased to learn that he was responsible for a photograph I remember finding amusing as a child – it depicts a drum major for the University of Michigan Marching Band rehearsing his high-stepping routine while a line of kids behind him are, with obvious hilarity, trying to mimic him. We are informed that Eisenstaedt called it his “ode to joy,” and we can believe it; the photograph is vividly evocative of the pleasure children can take in the ridiculous.
There is nothing oblique or coy or cunning about Eisenstaedt’s work, and you have the sense of a photographer who worked with his subjects to render them they way they wanted to be rendered. But there are a handful of images in which he captured something striking and spontaneous. These include several photos of children watching a puppet show in The Tuileries Garden in France; Eisenstaedt captures the mesmerized or stunned or triumphant faces of the children (there’s one or two of each) at the instant when a dragon is suddenly killed in the performance.
His most famous photo, certainly, is the V-Day image of the sailor in Times Square planting that bend-over-backward kiss on a nurse. It has become iconic of America’s mood at the end of the war, but after so many years it has a stagy, choreographed feel to it. On display at Hillwood though is another, more genuinely intimate image of a soldier and his woman friend in Penn Station: the soldier’s uniform is visible, but they both are wearing overcoats. The picture has a wintry feel to it and they seem to be seeking some solace, some warmth from each other – an image that tells a truer story about where a soldier has been and what he has seen.
Eisenstaedt was chummy with Marjorie Merriweather Post, and visitors to the exhibit will have a chance to sit (that’s always a plus for this museum-goer) and peruse the edition of Life that featured his color photos of Post’s life at Hillwood. Dozens of America’s post-war celebrities shot by Eisenstaedt (almost entirely in black-and-white) are on display: Ernest Hemingway, Marilyn Monroe, Sophia Loren, Jackie O, a mustachioed Salvador Dali and his wife. The couple of photos of Marilyn taken in 1953 at her Los Angeles bungalow (including two impromptu color ones) are striking – Eisenstaedt captured something raw about the overflowing sensuality in this doomed woman’s lips and cheekbones and eyes. We are informed that the photo shoot “left the usually even-keeled photographer so flustered and distracted that he mistakenly shot a roll of color film at the speed meant for black-and-white.”
The notation accompanying the photograph of Sophia Loren includes the kind of eyebrow-raising tidbit that pays for the price of admission to the Estate: We are told that “the photographer earned Loren’s trust in part because he resembled and reminded her of her obstetrician.” And we learn that one of Life’s most controversial covers was an Eisenstaedt shot of a scantily clad Loren, who was promoting her film, “Marriage Italian Style.”
Near the exit from the exhibit is an inscription from “Eisenstaedt’s Guide to Photography,” published in 1978: “There are no rules for composition except good judgement and taste.” Beneath the quote is a large black-and-white image of a swimsuit model whose judgement and taste may be debatable. For she is standing with her back to the camera on a beach in Miami, wearing a fur stole that wraps around her torso and ends just where her derriere fills her bathing suit. It was taken in 1940, but it seems to project forward 25 years to the “zany” go-go era of celebrity journalism in the 60s and 70s.
In just this way is it emblematic of this mid-century master, whose images speak of “another era” – one scarcely recognizable anymore – while anticipating and suggesting the new disruptive one that would follow and that would usher us into our own new century.
Details: Mid-Century Master: The Photography of Alfred Eisenstaedt is open until January 12, 2020. Admission is free as part of entrance to the Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens (4155 Linnean Avenue). Find directions, hours and information on visitors’ fees at hillwoodmuseum.org.
About the writer: Mark Moran was born and raised in the DC area and has lived in Dupont Circle/Adams Morgan, and later in Cleveland Park. He left for Chicago in 1997, and later moved to the Cleveland area in 2000. There he wrote for the Lakewood Observer, a volunteer hyperlocal news publication. In 2016, he moved back to the DC area and settled into Forest Hills in July 2018. Mark loves the proximity to Rock Creek Park, the lovely neighborhoods east and west of Connecticut Avenue, Bread Furst, Politics and Prose, Little Red Fox, and Comet Pizza. He can often be found in The Den at Politics and Prose. In addition to writing professionally for the American Psychiatric Association, he looks forward to writing for Forest Hills Connection.