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PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW : Taking a Lifeless Look at Eisenstaedt : History: Time has taken a toll of some of the pictures by one of Life magazine's first photographers.

January 23, 1991|SUSAN FREUDENHEIM | SAN DIEGO COUNTY ARTS EDITOR

SAN DIEGO — In the midst of these tense days of war, everything looks a little different. An upbeat moment loses some of its usual lightness. A dark moment is even more grim. This may be part of the reason that the bright, luscious black-and-white photos of Alfred Eisenstaedt now on view at San Diego's Circle Gallery in Old Town have lost some of their pizazz.

But there's more than that, too. Our expectations of photographs have changed since Eisenstaedt first became one of Life magazine's four original staff photographers in 1936. Through his work for Life, he became known as one of the most influential photographers in the history of photojournalism, and at 92, he's still working. But the 50 or so pictures in this show too often appear staged, stiff, impersonal and trite.

The worst are always the portrait pictures: Again and again the subjects are shown looking upward to the right, evidently a favored angle. This sameness becomes particularly painful when two glamorous shots are paired, one of Katharine Hepburn from 1938 and another of Betty Davis from the same year.

Adding to the problem is Eisenstaedt's treatment of the subjects. The pictures of these two Hollywood stars are beautiful; they give you a sense of the women's exterior beauty, both of whom were considered to be in their prime at the time. But the pictures, ultimately, have no heart. Eisenstaedt gave no hint of the women's character. No sense of their personality. His poised and perfectly posed photographs obliterate humanity.

From the thousands of photographs Eisenstaedt brought back from the 2,500 assignments he took on for Life, hundreds have been reproduced over and over in books and catalogues since the early 1930s. This show, however, is too heavy on the staged images, too light on the action pictures. Among the most successful works here are the few where he was, simply, an observer, and not in a position to impose his own point of view upon his subject.

The most powerful is one from 1934, before the German-born photographer joined Life. It shows the first meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Eisenstaedt caught the two men shaking hands, and the story is all there, years before the outbreak of war, before their names became equated with the devil incarnate.

Hitler stares into Mussolini's eyes with an intensity that is marked with a touch of gladness. He doesn't exactly smile, but there is a frank openness in his eye-to-eye communication with the Italian leader.

Mussolini, by contrast, appears more reserved, his look displays a sense of polite decorum and therefore is harder to read.

Another historic image, of a sailor kissing a nurse in the middle of Times Square on V-J Day, 1945, has that same power, though it, too, may have been staged.

The other side of war, the moment of victory and relief that it is over, is demonstrated in the human contact between two of the many people who played small roles in the conflict.

Eisenstaedt was at his best when he captured images through patience, when he was there just to shoot. Today, his work seem stale when it shows people in portrait situations because, evidently, he was too polite to look within.

Too often the images in this show are overcome by the glamour of their subjects. There's not much more than recognition factor to the portraits of names like Tennessee Williams, Robert Frost, John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.

They are beautiful images, but they have no soul.

"Alfred Eisenstaedt" continues at the Circle Gallery, 2501 San Diego Ave. through Feb. 5. Hours 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday.

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