Celebrating Fame in Black and White: Alfred Eisenstaedt and LIFE Magazine

Amy Henderson
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Alfred Eisenstaedt was one of the four original photographers Henry Luce hired to launch LIFE Magazine in 1936. Born in Poland in 1898, Eisenstaedt became a professional photographer in the 1920s and ‘30s, working for the Associated Press to document the transformation of Europe. With the rise of Hitler, he immigrated to the United States in 1935, and would work for LIFE Magazine from its inception until its final publication in 1972. More than 90 of his photographs were LIFE covers, and over 2,500 of his photo essays were published by the magazine.

The November 5, 1965 LIFE featured Eisenstaedt’s elaborate photo essay on businesswoman/socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post, an occasion that has now inspired the Hillwood Museum to organize an exhibition centered both on that article and on Eisenstaedt’s work at LIFE–Mid-Century Master: The Photography of Alfred Eisenstaedt.   


Marjorie Merriwether Post, Heiress and Founder of Post Foods, chatting with her schnauzer,who is posing in his canopied bed once used by Belgium royalty, at her 25-acre Hillwood estate. Washington, D.C. 1964. The Picture Collection, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Mrs. Post owned the Hillwood estate from 1955 until her death in 1973, and she dedicated the mansion, gardens, and now museum to the public in her will. Open to the public since 1977, Hillwood is a showcase for her renowned collection of fine and decorative arts, including Faberge eggs, French decorative arts, and ornate Russian Orthodox icons and religious objects.

Eisenstaedt photographed Mrs. Post’s life at Hillwood, as well as at her estates in Florida (Mar-a-Lago) and in the Adirondacks (Camp Topridge).  Although she was well-known in society and business circles by the 1960s, she became even more of a celebrity with Eisenstaedt’s 18-page LIFE spread.

Hillwood regularly organizes exhibitions on various aspects of Marjorie Merriweather Post’s life—notably a 2015 show depicting her “From Ingenue to Icon”—but the Eisenstaedt exhibit is unusual because she is more the central “hub” of an exhibit that showcases the photographer and his work.

Drum Major of the University of Michigan Rehearsing, Ann Arbor (1950). Photo-gelatin silver. The Picture Collection. All Rights Reserved.

The exhibition features letters between Mrs. Post and Eisenstaedt, and some of his personal effects—notably his Leica camera. The backstory here is about the rise of photojournalism in the 1920s and ‘30s, which was facilitated by the advent of Leica’s 35 mm. camera. Rather than lugging around the cumbersome Speed Graphic camera, photographers were now able to take the small camera everywhere. They were also able to use available natural light rather than the larger camera’s demanding flash attachment.

Portrait of actress Marilyn Monroe on patio of her home. Hollywood (1953). The Picture Collection, Inc. All rights reserved.

Eisenstaedt galloped around with his Leica, and developed a style that captured celebrities in candid moments. LIFE Magazine proved the perfect format for him, and he became a prime proponent of photojournalism. His work for LIFE created an instant history portrait of 20th century America’s most important people and significant moments.

The Hillwood exhibition has nearly fifty seminal examples of Eisenstaedt’s LIFE photographs, including “V-J Day at Times Square,” and photo’s of such famous characters as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Ernest Hemingway, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Albert Einstein.  The exhibit also examines Eisenstaedt’s technical prowess, displaying how he composed his shots and evolved his particular style through changing perspectives, patterns, and lighting.

Most importantly, the exhibit portrays Eisenstaedt as a photographer renowned for his ability to capture his rich and famous subjects in candid moments. His philosophy was that it was “more important to click with people than to click the shutter.”

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

Mid-Century Master will be at Hillwood Museum through January 12, 2020

4155 Linnean Avenue,

NW Washington, DC 20008

 www.HillwoodMuseum.org

202-686-5807

Above, left: Headwaiter Andree Breguet of Grand Hotel Saint Moritz, serving cocktails on ice rink. Saint Moritz, 1932. The Picture Collection, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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