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Images From His Life in Pictures : Memories: He was a man who could melt into the crowd--or demand the perks he had coming to him.

August 28, 1995|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Legendary photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt died Thursday of cardiac arrest at the age of 96. He is remembered here by two friends: Times Arts Editor Emeritus Charles Champlin, who worked on assignments with the photographer at Life, and fellow photojournalist Carl Mydans, who had worked side by side with Eisenstaedt at Life since 1936, the year that both joined the celebrated pictorial magazine.

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Alfred Eisenstaedt is dead at the extraordinary age of 96, but those of us who worked with him in the great days of Life magazine somehow imagined that he would live forever. He seemed indestructible as well as indefatigable.

He was a short, bald figure with bright, arresting eyes, and he could be imperious and mischievous almost simultaneously, but he also had the ability, not unlike the Shadow, to be unobtrusive to the point of invisibility in situations where he did not want to be a presence.

I think I never saw him without a Leica around his neck, and whether he was working or not, whenever the light changed (in the days before the camera did all the work), I'd see him quietly adjusting the shutter speed or the aperture to the new conditions. He was always ready because, not less than Henri Cartier-Bresson, he knew there was an exact instant and it did not recur.

The Spring Hill Mine Disaster gained later fame as the title of a Richard Brautigan book, but it was a real-enough event. Nine days after a cave-in deep in a Nova Scotia coal mine, faint tappings were heard. Some of the trapped men were miraculously still alive. Life scrambled together a six-man team, including Eisie and me (customarily a desk-bound writer then), and we flew to Boston without stopping for a toothbrush or a change of socks and caught a plane to Halifax.

Halifax was fogged in, so we landed in pouring rain in the middle of the night at an abandoned RCAF field in the middle of nowhere. The airline had arranged for rental cars to meet us (we were a planeload of journalists), and I drove the Life team over the twisting, two-lane blacktop through the foggy darkness to Spring Hill, with Eisie crying, "Slow, child, slow; better we get there late than not at all."

We arrived at dawn, and two of the photographers rushed to the pithead. Some of the survivors had already been brought out, and I said I was off to the hospital to interview them. Eisie said, "I go with you, child."

One of the survivors, with a heavy growth of beard, was lying in bed for examination. His very young granddaughter had been lifted onto his stomach and was reaching to touch his whiskers. I thought, "Damn, what a picture. Where's Eisie?" At that moment I heard a quiet click behind me. Eisie, of course, and the picture of the exact and poignant instant ran across two pages in the magazine.

A few years earlier, Eisie and I rode on a flatbed truck in the parade welcoming Douglas MacArthur back to Milwaukee, where he once lived, after his dismissal by Harry S. Truman and his return from Korea in 1950. Suddenly, Eisie began yelling at a woman at the curb, "Your lens cap, your lens cap, take off your lens cap!" The woman hadn't the faintest idea what the little man on the truck was yelling about, but she waved cheerfully. Eisie looked as pained as if it had been one of his own Leicas; for him, non-functioning camera was a definition of hell.

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Life photographers were noted (at least among their dutiful reporters and researchers) for their surpassing egos. Eisie's was one of the largest, but also the most supremely justified. He wore it quietly for the most part, although like a cinema superstar, he knew what his perks were.

He went off to do a later famous picture essay on the Everglades, but left in a fury because he was not going to have a New York reporter with him, or a bureau reporter, or a stringer, or a stringer's stringer but a stringer's stringer's wife. But she proved to be both beautiful and terribly well- organized. If Eisie hoped for a snake loitering behind a lily pad, there was somehow a snake in the proper position (no thanks to the wife, but who knew?). Eisie came back to New York raving about her. Standing in the news bureau he said, "I think I'll send her some chocolates." Traffic stopped; Eisie was going to do that? Himself, personally? There was a fateful pause. Eisie looked around and said, "Who is in charge of sending out chocolates?"

More than any photographer I ever knew or worked with, Eisie seemed not simply to use but to be organically attached to the camera. It was part of him, the viewfinder an extension of his eye. And when the image came together, he squeezed off a frame. The legend was that he shot his first three stories for Life on one roll of 35mm film. I have no trouble believing it; he knew when he had the picture.

He was famous early and late and he basked in it, as he should have. Kathy, the wife he loved so much, died nearly a quarter-century ago. Eisie had a long widowerhood. The acclaim, and his daily trips to the magazine to be with his negatives and prints, helped fill his hours. Friends in New York told me his sight had begun to fail, a particular tragedy for a man whose eyes had seen so much so well. Perhaps it's a blessing that he left us before those eyes could see only in memory. We have his pictures.

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