Alfred Eisenstaedt & the birth of Photojournalism

Alfred Eisenstaedt Self Portrait, India, 1954Self Portrait on assignment for LIFE in India, 1954

Even if you haven’t heard of Alfred Eisenstaedt, you will know his work. He was a photographer for Life magazine from its first to last weekly issue and carried on clicking for almost 70 years in total, travelling the world and defining what we know now as ‘the photo essay’. Time magazine heralded Eisenstaedt's V-J Day, Times Square,1945 as one of the ten greatest images in the history of photojournalism.

Alfred Eisenstaedt: V-J Day, Times Square,1945
V-J Day, Times Square,1945

Eisenstaedt started taking photos at 14 in 1920’s Germany with his first camera: an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera. He became a full-time photographer in 1929 when he was hired by Associated Press, Germany and only 4 years later photographed Hitler and Mussolini in Italy. In 1935 he was sent to Ethiopia to cover Italy’s impending invasion where he took over 3,500 photographs.

“Eisie”, as he became affectionally known, and his German Jewish family fled from Nazi Germany to America shortly after where he found his storytelling home at LIFE magazine as one of the first 4 staff photographers. 

Alfred Eisenstaedt. Children at outdoor puppet theatre, Paris, 1963.
Children at an outdoor puppet theater in Paris, 1963.

He used a small Leica 35mm camera which was much lighter than the less portable 4” x 5” press cameras of the time and allowed him greater speed & flexibility when shooting new events or action photos. It also enabled him to put his subjects at ease, “They don’t take much notice of me and my little camera” he stated. “I don’t come as a photographer. I come as a friend”. (New York Magazine, Sept. 15, 1986)

Alfred Eisenstaedt. Drum major, University of Michigan marching band, 1950.
Drum major, University of Michigan marching band, 1950.

As Robert Andreas wrote in ‘The Great LIFE Photographers’, "Eisenstaedt never lost his childlike interest in things and people, in what made them what they were. He would put his subjects at ease, then get up close and take a few pictures—he didn't need roll after roll—then it was on to the next person, the next happening, tirelessly pursuing the heart of the matter that he saw so easily and wanted very much for us to see too."

Alfred Eisenstaedt. Ballerinas, George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, 1936.
Ballerinas, George Balanchine's School of American Ballet, 1936.

Besides his successes in photojournalism, Eisie photographed entertainers, celebrities, politicians & authors during his career with Life & by 1972 had over 90 of his photos on the cover and nearly 2,500 stories published.

Alfred Eisenstaedt. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 1951.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, 1951.
Alfred Eisenstaedt. Marilyn Monroe at home, 1953.
Marilyn Monroe on the patio of her home, 1953.
Alfred Eisenstaedt. Albert Einstein, Princeton, 1948.
Albert Einstein, Princeton, 1948.

He died in 1995, at the age of 96, at his New York home with his sister-in-law and a close friend by his side.

For more Alfred Eisenstaedt photos, visit our LIFE Photographers Pinterest Board

Check out the work of 100 Prints contributor, Andy Scaysbrook. Andy is a travel and documentary photographer and also started his career as a press photographer. 

See also our collectible Portraits and Black & White Collections.