I am SO in awe of photographers who take pictures of people and how well they depict someone’s personality. Photography is one of my hobbies but I tend to focus (pun intended) on landscapes and buildings. The major advantage with taking pictures of a meadow or a building is that they’re a LOT less likely to wiggle around or move out of focus.
I like photography shows since you can pick up great tips about composition, color and texture, as well as how all of those factors make a difference to a photograph. One of the best tips I ever got from a professional photographer was to use my flash to photograph people in strong sunlight; I figured out on my own once that my people photos look more natural if my subjects are involved in some type of activity.
This week, I read Eisenstaedt Remembrances, a collection of photographs and stories from Alfred Eisenstaedt’s (Eisie to his closest friends) 60-year career as a photographer for LIFE magazine. Although much of the world knows him as “that guy who took the famous picture of the sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day,” Eisie was so much more than that and the photos in the book show it. He photographed the famous and the infamous, the rich and the poor, the old and the young, of many different ethnicities. Patience and curiosity were his trademarks.
The book has images of literary lions, famous actors, scientists, musicians, royalty, dancers and a range of others. It’s fun to see these famous people and getting a glimpse of their everyday worlds.
Photography had its hazards. The book tells a story of how Eisie once photographed a Parisian streetwalker in 1932 and she summoned her henchmen to deal with him. Fortunately, Eisie ran faster and escaped without injury.
Another story is that Ernest Hemingway tried to throw Eisie off a dock, camera and all, when Eisie took some shots for a LIFE magazine story about The Old Man and The Sea. Yikes!
Eisie took a famous — and chilling — shot of World War II’s Joseph Goebbels in Geneva in 1933. There was a “before” shot where Goebbels smiled and looked relatively friendly. After he learned that Eisie was of Jewish ancestry, the facial expression drastically changed to a harsh glare for Eisie’s photo and you can almost feel the menace. Brrr.
I recommend that you read the foreword, Editor’s Note and introduction, because they contain some priceless information that you don’t want to miss. The book contains some valuable Eisie gems that are ideal for anyone wishing to improve their people photos:
I like photographing people only at their best. This means making them feel relaxed and completely at home with you from the beginning.
I seldom think when I take a picture. My eyes and fingers react — click. But first, it’s most important to decide on the angle at which your photograph is to be taken.
I always prefer photographing in natural light — or Rembrandt-light I like to call it — so you get the natural modulations of the face. It makes a more alive, real, and flattering portrait.
In a photograph a person’s eyes tell much, sometimes they tell all.
My favorite image in the book is Eisie’s photo of a 1950s drum major with a line of children following him, photographed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The kids look like they’re having a blast; I wonder where they are now and if that building is still standing? That would be a fun then-and-now photo to recreate.
Eisie passed away 20 years ago, before smartphones, tablets and digital cameras really got going. Wouldn’t he be fascinated, don’t you think, with all of the new photography toys we have? I think it’s possible.
The video below, courtesy of David Hoffman on YouTube, offers a quick glimpse of Eisie. It’s part of a documentary and shows the house where Eisie grew up at the end. Have fun watching!