Part 5 – Eisenstaedt to Weegee
Alfred Eisenstaedt (Germany, USA) 1898 – 1995
Alfred Eisenstaedt was a German-born American photojournalist and one of the twentieth century’s most prolific photographers. Born in Dirschau, West Prussia, by age 14 Eisenstaedt had taken up photography via his Kodak Folding Camera. In 1928, he turned freelancer, eventually working under Erich Salomon in Berlin in the Associated Press office. In 1935, already well known, Eisenstaedt emigrated to New York City, where he became one of the first four photographers hired by Life Magazine back when it was still called “Project X.”
It was as a Life staffer that he gained prominence, with more than 90 of his photos gracing the cover and more than 2,500 photo stories published. His most famous cover photo, the one that forever places him in the mythical Street Photographer’s Hall of Fame, was the V-J Day celebration in New York City of “an exuberant American sailor kissing a nurse that summed up the euphoria many Americans felt at the war’s close.
Eisenstaedt shot like many street shooters, using a small 35mm Leica and typically using only natural lighting. This was different than most news photographers at the time, who typically shot with larger 4″ x 5″ press cameras with active flash attachments, “Eisenstaedt preferred the smaller hand-held Leica which gave him greater speed and more flexibility when shooting news events or capturing candids of people in action,” according to the Oxford Dictionary of American Art and Artists, Oxford Univ. Press.
It is this distinction in style that leads me to include him in the early stages of the Transitional Epoch. His style and equipment was of the Street. Technically perfect mattered less than propitious and artistic. He shot what was, but always with an eye for what was newsworthy and cover-ready, laying the foundation for what excellent street photography would always be: timely, timeless, artistic, and emotionally powerful.
Hardly just a street shooter, however, Eisenstaedt’s work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the International Center of Photography (a retrospective), the Philadelphia College of Art, and others. Eisenstaedt’s photographs are in the permanent collections of the Royal Photographic Society, London; the International Center of Photography, New York; the George Eastman House, Rochester; and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.
Ultimately, Eisenstaedt, over his long and illustrious career and life, was one of the first to show that being a great street photographer doesn’t mean you only shoot life in the street. It simply means that you can, and sometimes do.
Berenice Abbott (USA) – 1898 – 1991
Born Bernice Abbott in Springfield, Ohio, Abbott moved to New York City in 1918, where she embraced an atypical and artistic lifestyle after toying with a career in journalism. A self-proclaimed lesbian at a time one didn’t mention such things, in 1921, she moved to Europe, spending two years studying sculpture in Paris and Berlin. During this time, her friend, the writer Djuna Barnes suggested Abbott adopt the French spelling of her first name, “Berenice,” which she did. Abbott was a visual artist and poet, naturally moving toward photography in 1923 or 1925, when she was hired as a darkroom assistant by photographer Man Ray. According to Abbott, it was love at first sight—she and photography: “I took to photography like a duck to water. I never wanted to do anything else,” she would write later.
Impressed by Abbott’s darkroom prowess, Man Ray allowed her to use his studio, and in 1926 she held her first solo exhibition. By 1927, she’d opened a second Paris studio.
In 1925, Man Ray introduced her to the relatively unknown Eugène Atget’s work, in which she immediately became interested. In 1927, she managed to convince the 70-year-old Atget to sit for a portrait. He would die shortly thereafter. Abbott bought much of Atget’s work in 1928, and published a 1930 book called Atget, Photographe de Paris, for which she was listed as photo editor. She would continue to promote his work for another forty years.
Having been turned toward the Street Side by
Obi-Wan Atget’s work, Abbott returned to NYC in 1929 and began her own work. She traded in her hand-held camera for a large format camera, much like Atget’s, with a eye toward an attention to minute detail. She was inspired by her predecessor, but with her own agenda. According to Wikipedia:
“Abbott’s project was primarily a sociological study embedded within modernist aesthetic practices. She sought to create a broadly inclusive collection of photographs that together suggest a vital interaction between three aspects of urban life: the diverse people of the city; the places they live, work and play; and their daily activities. It was intended to empower people by making them realize that their environment was a consequence of their collective behavior. Moreover, she avoided the merely pretty in favor of what she described as “fantastic” contrasts between the old and the new, and chose her camera angles and lenses to create compositions that either stabilized a subject (if she approved of it), or destabilized it (if she scorned it).”
In short, she shot with a sociological bent, using modernist compositional elements. Importantly, note that she slanted her photo (figuratively) in order to make it say what she intended to say. This was the old documentarian, yellow journalism ethic married to modern technique. The Age of Street was truly underway.
Weegee [Arthur Fellig] (Ukraine, USA) -1899 – 1968
Weegee, born Ascher (Usher) Fellig in what is now Zolochiv, Ukraine, spent his career as a photographer and a photojournalist, famously working in New York’s Lower East Side in Manhattan during the 1920s and 1930s. His style was stark and raw black and white, which he developed as a result of chasing emergency vehicles in the city.
Weegee was one of street’s first “ambulance chasers,” shooting what he needed and showing life on and off the street with dramatic flair and little room left for tender sensibilities. His nickname was reputedly a derivation of Ouija, earned for his knack of making it to a crime scene before police. It seemed like ESP, but was actually his being tuned to police radio. Liking the mystique, however, Fellig took Weegee as his professional name.
The only way to understand Weegee’s style is to view his work. For that, I’ll point you to my longer study of Weegee, one of my personal influences, here on this blog.