Alfred Eisenstaedt is perhaps best known for his iconic photograph of a sailor and nurse kissing in Times Square on V-J Day. But the Jewish photographer was also a nature lover, a World War I vet, and a man whose most treasured days were spent in the quiet of Martha’s Vineyard.
The photographer who famously depicted the US victory over Japan was born in humble surroundings, in West Prussia in 1898. Eisie, as he was called for the duration of his life, moved with his family to Berlin at the age of 8. At 14, he was given his first camera as a gift, an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera.
When World War I broke out, Eisenstaedt was drafted into the German Army’s artillery, suffering shrapnel to the knees in 1918. He was the only member of his artillery battery to survive the war.
Eisie’s injuries were slow to heal and he could not walk without the use of crutches for years. After the war, he began taking photos more frequently, as photography at that time required little movement. At the start of the 1920’s, Eisenstaedt sold freelance photos to a little company called the Pacific and Atlantic Photos, which would later become the Associated Press.
“Photojournalism had just started,” Eisenstaedt said. “And I knew very little about photography. It was an adventure, and I was always amazed when anything came out.”
In 1929, Eisie became a full time photographer. He had a knack for creating candid imagery that slowly grew in acclaim, including now-renowned shots of an ice skating waiter at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz and a young socialite on opening night of the La Scala Opera in Milan. He took several noted portraits, like a meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini and a shot of Joseph Goebbels.
But by the 1930’s, the young Jewish man filled with ambition found it harder and harder to work under Hitler’s rising regime, and he immigrated to the US. Landing in New York, he would live there for the remainder of his life.
Shortly after settling in the states, Eisenstaedt was approached by magazine publisher Henry Luce to join a small staff of a new, secret publication being called Project X. Eisie agreed, and in 1936 his images graced the very first pages of LIFE Magazine.
The working relationship with Luce would continue for decades, and Eisenstaedt also became known for his work on another of the entrepreneur’s magazines, TIME. But it was in the pages of LIFE that Eisie’s most enduring work appeared–a snapshot of the day Japan’s surrender effectively ended World War II.
“I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight,” Eisenstaedt once said. “Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make any difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder…Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse.”
“People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.”
The image has endured for decades and is arguably one of the most iconic photos from the 20th century. Still, Eisie’s work continued to grow and evolve well past that day in Times Square, as he went on to photograph celebrities like Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe and Ernest Hemingway, and world leaders like JFK and Richard Nixon. One of his last professional shoots was a portrait of the Clinton family on Martha’s Vineyard in 1993.
Eisie died in 1995 at the age of 96. In his lifetime he was married to his wife of 22 years, Kathy, who died in 1972 of cancer. He was awarded the National Medal of the Arts on the White House lawn by President George HW Bush in 1989. To this day, the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism hands out annually the Alfred Eisenstaedt Awards for Magazine Photography.
He is still known affectionately as the Father of Photojournalism.
Famous quotes from Alfred Eisenstaedt:
“When I have a camera in my hand, I know no fear.”
“Once the amateur’s naive approach and humble willingness to learn fades away, the creative spirit of good photography dies with it.”
“Every professional should remain always in his heart an amateur.”
“I dream that someday the step between my mind and my finger will no longer be needed. And that simply by blinking my eyes, I shall make pictures. Then, I think, I shall really have become a photographer.”
“I don’t like to work with assistants. I’m already one too many; the camera alone would be enough.”
“It is more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”
“Keep it simple.”