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Photo Pioneer Alfred Eisenstaedt Dies : Journalism: 'Eisie' recorded some of the 20th Century's most enduring images, many for Life magazine. He was 96.

August 25, 1995|From a Times Staff Writer

Alfred Eisenstaedt, a pioneer of modern photojournalism whose camera recorded many of the historic photographs of World War II, including that of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York's Times Square to celebrate V-J Day, has died. He was 96.

Eisenstaedt, who lived in New York City, died late Wednesday of cardiac arrest while vacationing on Martha's Vineyard, his friend William Marks announced Thursday.

One of Life magazine's first four photographers, Eisenstaedt was working for the magazine when he took the exuberant Times Square photo. It became a Life cover, a symbol of the end of the war, and a defining moment in photojournalism.

"When people don't know me anymore, they will remember that picture," the photographer said years later.

Eisenstaedt pioneered the use of natural light and informal poses in the late 1920s and early '30s, and continued as a working photographer almost to his death.

There were tens of thousands of "Eisie" pictures published worldwide over the course of a career that spanned more than six decades. He may have been the most widely published photographer in history. He may also have been the best.

"He's probably the greatest genius in photojournalism we'll ever see," former Life photographer and editor John Bryson said a few years ago. "A lot of people think they can strap on a couple Nikons and call themselves photojournalists, but Eisie is head and shoulders above them all."

His best work lives on, of course, indelible images of the breadth of human experience--the ugliness and beauty of the 20th Century, all captured with a basic purity of technique and a simpleness of spirit that left no room for photographic trickery.

The images remain, although the old weekly Life magazine is gone and the era of still photography has been overtaken by the television age:

The photo of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini shaking hands, meeting for the first time before the outbreak of World War II . . . the shot of Winston Churchill flashing his V for victory sign during the German bombing of London . . . the picture of the sultry Marlene Dietrich posing in a tuxedo . . . the many photos of the Kennedy clan enjoying life in Hyannis Port.

Then there were the portraits--Ernest Hemingway, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, Sophia Loren and Marilyn Monroe.

The man who was to take these pictures was born Dec. 6, 1898, in Dirschau, Germany, now a part of Poland, and raised in Berlin, the son of a prosperous department store owner. On his 14th birthday, he was given a camera by an uncle, and, as he said in a 1987 interview with The Times, showed early promise but not an abundant amount of interest in his new toy.

Eisenstaedt graduated from high school and in 1916 was drafted and sent to Flanders to serve in a German artillery unit. His war service ended a year later when a British shell struck his battery. He was the lone survivor and was sent home to recover from shrapnel wounds.

Eisenstaedt attended college in Berlin, but his family lost its fortune in Germany's devastating postwar inflation and he was forced to find work--selling belts and buttons wholesale.

About 1920, Eisenstaedt took up photography and, he said, became a "real fanatic" when a friend showed him how to make enlargements.

"I was thrilled when I discovered what you could do with an enlarger," Eisenstaedt said in 1978. "Nobody knew about enlarging then. I could take the arms, or the legs, or the tree branches. I could crop things out. That's when the bug hit me."

He set up a crude darkroom in the family bathroom, and like thousands of other hobbyists, snapped away at whatever interested him. But there was something special about Eisenstaedt. He had spent several years in the museums of Berlin, studying the light and shadow in the works of Rembrandt and others, and the experience began to show in his photographs.

He made his first sale in 1927, a shot of a woman playing tennis that he had taken while on vacation in Czechoslovakia. The editor of a German periodical gave him three marks (about $12 at the time) for it and asked for more pictures.

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"The photo bug bit me and this started my whole career," he said. "For me, still photography still is magic things. It captures the moment, the excitement and it comes out in the developer and it creates beautiful images."

Eisenstaedt quickly became a successful professional, quitting his button-selling job and working full time as a free-lancer for a Berlin picture agency that later developed into a subsidiary of Associated Press. He also became one of the standard-bearers of the rapidly developing art of photojournalism.

He was among a group of German editors and photographers working to replace stiffly posed flash photography with news pictures that captured a feeling of realism and immediacy by using existing light.

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