Eisenstaedt: Comic Vision

By Anna J. Beatty

Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt: A Self-Portrait. by Alfred Eisenstaedt Abbe-ville Press. New York, 1985.

It's refreshing to browse through a book by a photographer who uses 'Only existing light and (tries) not to push people around" Born in West Prussia in 1898, Alfred Eisenstaedt was one of the original staff photog­raphers for Life. Sometimes called "the father of photojournalism." he says his motto is "keep it simple" — perhaps a reaction to those years of carrying around a lot of glass plates. The equipment may be simple, but i the images are often rich in story and character.
This is a book that deserves a sec­ond look — and then a third. On my first time through, I was impressed by the wealth of historical informa­tion there — about how people looked and lived, especially between the two world wars. The second time I looked at the book, the qual­ity and depth of Eisenstaedt's humor came through. He reveals a gentle vi­sion of absurdity and human pretension. He shows us Prussian agricul­tural students with milking stools attached to their bottoms. Prussian coachmen learn to hold the reins while seated in rows in a classroom. Elderly men in business suits and stiff collars lie on the floor and play with toy trains.
The third time through. I began to form an image of Eisenstaedt's personality. Beyond his professed shyness and evident humor is the humility to publicize his mistakes. Sent to cover a royal wedding in Bulgaria, he became so engrossed with King Ferdinand ("with the long­est nose in the world") and the other celebrities he forgot to photograph the bride and groom. It is this sort of personal candor that tempers the pointedness of his comic vision. The book has weak spots, some of them editorial. Some of the pictures of celebrities seem to be interesting only because of who the people are or because of some little story Eisenstaedt tells about them. While the text often adds another dimen­sion to an image that stands on its own, it is sometimes awkward, banal, or worse. There's a syntacti­cally monstrous sentence about a 1938 photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that erroneous­ly suggests she was born in England. Then there's Andrew Wyeth's spot­less Dalmatian dog — but maybe there's a story there he didn't tell us.