What Alfred Eisenstaedt taught me about artistic instinct

 

Alfred Eistenstaedt, in case the name doesn’t ring a bell, was one of the great still photographers of the 20th century. He got his start in Germany, in the early 1930s, when Leica introduced the world’s first 35 mm cameras, which, unlike their predecessors, were small enough to go anywhere and sophisticated enough to take good pictures in almost any conditions. Eisenstaedt gained notice with photographs he took of  Hitler and Mussolini meeting in 1933. In the late 1930s, he left Germany for America.

In the prime of his career, from about 1940 to about 1970, Eisenstaedt was one of the mainstays of Life magazine’s renowned team of photographers and hundreds of his pictures appeared in print in the days when almost every American household subscribed to Life. During that time, his work appeared on 90 Life covers, a record unequalled by any other photographer. He became known as “the father of photojournalism.”

Eisenstaedt took his most famous picture on V-J Day (that’s “victory in Japan” for you non-historians) in Times Square, in August, 1945. I’m sure you’ve seen it: the sailor kissing the nurse in the midst of a celebrating crowd. It’s probably among the ten best remembered photographs of all time. Many of his photographs of actresses, politicians and soldiers are almost as famous.

When I met Alfred Eisenstaedt, he was on the wrong side of 90, a little elfin man with arched eyebrows and a perpetual expression somewhere between mischief and surprise. I’d been hired to write the voice-over narration on a half-hour film being made to honor him and his accomplishments.  Our first encounter took place in the Hilton Hotel in New York City. I called from the lobby and he told me to come up.

When he opened the door, I was surprised to find him dressed in his long-johns. “Pardon me,” he said shyly, in German-accented English, “but I haven’t quite finished my morning exercises. Do you mind?”

“Of course not, Mr. Eisenstaedt.” I took a seat in a guest chair.

“Call me Eisie,” he said. “Everyone else does.” The little old man trotted over to his bed, stuck his stockinged feet under the box spring and proceeded to do twenty sit-ups in about as many seconds. Then he rolled over and did twenty pushups almost as quickly.  He stood and smiled. “Now I get dressed,” he said. He wasn’t even slightly winded.

He pulled on a sweat shirt and pants, pulled up a chair and sat down across from me. “Zo,” he said, “what are we to talk about?”

“Well, as you know, uh, Eisie, I’m going to be writing voice-over narration for you to read, over the footage we have of you in action and the new footage they’ll be shooting.”

“You’ll be writing my words?”

I pulled out my little tape recorder and pushed the “on” button. “I intend to use as much of your language as possible. So I’m going to ask some questions and record your words now, so I can put them in some kind of order, in a script.”

Eisie considered this, and smiled. “That will be satisfactory.”

“Good,” I said, thinking this might be easier than I had anticipated. “Well, here’s my first question: You worked mainly in an era before motorized cameras. And yet you always seem to catch your subject at the right moment.”

“Yes,” he said. “They say I take the picture at the defining moment.”

“How do you know exactly when to snap the shutter?”

“I just know,” he said. “Something tells me, something inside.”

“What if someone suggests that you take a picture before you want to?”

Eisie pursed his lips and considered the question. “I listen,” he said. “If they’re right, I do it. If they’re not, I don’t.”

I decided not to let him off the hook. I wanted more. I was looking for some explanation of his artistic ability. “But how do you know if they’re right or wrong.”

He looked up at me, so we were eye to eye now. “I listen to my instincts,” he said at last, as if that should settle the question.

“Tell me about your instincts,” I asked.

Eisie chuckled to himself. “There’s nothing to tell,” he said. “I just ask myself if it feels right to me, should I wait, should I hurry, should the subject should be a little more to the right—or the left, do I want it backlit or do I want the sun over my shoulder?”

“What if it doesn’t feel right?”

He shrugged. “Then I change what I am doing. I come in closer, or I back up. I take a different angle. When it feels right to me, I take the picture. My instinct tells me to. It’s my originality, my creativity. It is who I am.”

“I suppose other photographers work the same way.”

Eisie walked over to the minibar and got himself a Perrier and brought me one as well. “Yes. The good ones. If they have instincts and they listen to them.”

“And if they don’t?”

He took a long swig from the Perrier bottle. “Then they are not artists,” he said. “They are craftsmen, working according to someone else’s instincts, or according to what they think someone might like. They’re like secretaries taking dictation, or like ventriloquist’s dummies. When you’re creating something, you can’t do it according to someone else’s instincts.”

What Eisie was telling me, I eventually understood, didn’t just apply to photography. It applied to every kind of creative act, from designing a house to writing an obituary, from covering a canvas with paint to making music. Your instincts are the “you-ness” in you, and to a world looking for something fresh, something original, something unique, they’re really all you have to offer.

Since then, I’ve often about what Eisie said. I’ve thought about it when I’m reading–trying to sharpen my instincts, to get to know them better and be sure of them. I’ve thought about it when I’m writing—trying to listen to my instincts, trying not to accept my own work when it just didn’t feel right, no matter how many times I have to go back to the well. I’ve thought about it when someone suggests I alter a character or change a plot, asking myself if the suggestion squared with my instincts. I’ve thought about it when the guy who was paying me told me to do it his way.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that as a writer, my instincts are my most important possession. I try to recognize them, nurture them and follow them. Thanks Eisie.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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About Harvey Ardman

I’m the author of twenty published books¬ including two spy thrillers, a popular history, and a number of ghost-written biographies, self-help books and similar non-fiction. I’ve also written many TV documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel and , A & E. In addition, I've written pieces for Business Week, the Atlantic Monthly and Esquire. I have a MS in journalism from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and a BS in journalism from Northwestern University. My wife and I live in Maine.
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