at Circle Gallery
Alfred Eisenstaedt, still working at 92, uses the bare minimum of equipment. Advances in technology since his first professional assignment, in 1929, haven’t lured him away from what’s most important to a good photographer: the eye to see and the ability to react quickly.
Perhaps Eisenstaedt’s methodology contributes to his starkly simple photos, which breathe emotion as naturally as a good actor does in a heartfelt role. Eisenstaedt’s photos are honest to the moment, and that spontaneity is the very essence of life. Whatever the feeling may be–the sheer exuberance of V-J Day Times Square, NYC 1945 or the pensiveness of Future Ballerinas of the American Ballet Theatre, NYC 1937–it’s the intensity of the moment that makes you feel like a participant, or as if you were privy to someone else’s private thought. He shows us the vulnerability of luminaries, the perfunctory nature of time and fame–a knowledge reflected in the eyes of his portrait subjects. That poignancy makes his portraits more than mere documentation–makes them psychological analyses. Eisenstaedt not only brings out the importance of the ordinary, but reduces the scale of the majestic moment to mortal size.
Making the grandiose pithy and the ordinary grand is no mean task–it takes work. “I have found that the most important element in my equipment is not an expensive camera or a unique lens but patience, patience, patience,” he has said. “If you don’t know how to stand knee-deep in water for hours, or sit broiling in the sunshine while mosquitoes buzz around your head, remaining absolutely motionless yet relaxed and alert, you are finished before you start. It is a question of temperament more than technique.” As in the craft of ballet (which he photographs so well), it’s always the things that look simplest that are, in reality, the most complex and difficult to achieve.
Even his shots of celebrities’ empty rooms have a sheer emotion. Like a good narrator, Eisenstaedt is not content to merely tell you the story: he knows where the punch line comes in, and centrally locates it with an unfailing eye, loading a few objects with implication.
The lines of Beethoven’s Birthroom are all perpendiculars, like the composer’s thorny personality. The tiny atticlike room is like a manger, the birthplace of a god. Yet its claustrophobia–such inauspicious, confined beginnings–is broken by the fact that it’s shot from a corner and that an open window to the right allows sunshine to pour into the darkened room. The square of light–with the same precise struggle, Eisenstaedt harnesses nature as Beethoven did in his themes–points as surely as all the angular lines to an imposing bust of Beethoven on a pedestal, gazing absentmindedly off to the left, looking like the real man instead of his marble image. Eisenstaedt’s camera literally forces your gaze into worship of the master.
In his spare Andrew Wyeth’s Bed, an old black hat is the punch line–the idealized but tattered hat of every artist, but especially reminiscent of van Gogh’s agonized self-portraits. Its shaggy ruffled edges look immense on the bed’s clean white expanse. An indentation in the middle of the two pillows–as if someone napping had just gotten up–gives the otherwise pristine tidiness of the carefully made bed a sign of life, breathing into it the mess of daily living. Like others, the artist must reinforce himself with the mundane chore of sleep.
Eisenstaedt is equally comfortable with an overcrowded room, bringing it down to size by transforming it, Busby Berkeley-style, into a geometric shape. He turns a roomful of graduating nurses posed on some stairs into a picture of a trapezoid. The subjects of Midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy, posed on a similar staircase, are turned into an oval spiral. In this endless procession, one dedicated, eager young face after another looks out at you–yet these professions do attain their power from group efficiency, hence the communal shot.
In Premier at La Scala, Milan, the same imposing repetition of spiral rows (tiers of box seats with colonnades) focuses the attention on one young woman gazing thoughtfully in the foreground. It’s the fragility and beauty of the moment that give this photo its focus. She’s decorated as heavily as the six tiers of balconies: we see her jewelry–a ring, a bracelet, a necklace, a watch–and the lace at her elbow. Yet like the war-horse building itself, which has served up many an inspired performance despite catering to the gilded tastes of the gentry it serves, she may have a genuine artistic bent. After all, her opera glasses, out of their case, are propped on a special shelf in front of her. And she isn’t using them to stare at the society mavens around her.
Lesson at La Scala’s Ballet School, Milan, Italy 1934 gives the same imprint of character to four pairs of legs. Framed inside the antique box of a communal desk are the legs of four budding ballerinas in schoolgirl-white ankle socks and frayed ballet slippers with scuffed toes. They’re preparing to hit the books now as hard as they’ve just been dancing. A pencil case props one book open for two of them. On the far left, one pair of feet are in a classic fifth position; the pair next to them look as if they’re about to pirouette. Another pair, propped back on the footrest, seem to be preparing for a leap, while the pair on the right are in casual repose. The strings may be hanging carelessly out of the slippers, but the rigorous discipline of barre exercises is evident in the characteristic poses the feet have fallen into, even in “relaxation.” The low placement of this photo at Circle Gallery, right below waist level, enhances the feeling of imminent flight.
The shape containing the two ballerinas in Swan Lake Rehearsal is an oval–a deeply recessed window. The two have climbed inside the thick iron bars covering the window to look longingly outside–as if in a moment of escape from their voluntary prison of discipline. The formal look of their puffed-out tutus is in sharp contrast to the chipped and cracked walls. They may be interpreting the classics, but these performers are merely enacting a plush royal existence, not living it. Yet the photo does have overall a nostalgic and romantic tone. It makes you think of sepia-colored photographs in ornate oval silver frames.
Eisenstaedt knows the difference between sugarcoating and the truth. Hazing at the U.S. Academy is starkly condemnatory. A cadet sits at the head of a table, ramrod straight on the very edge of his chair; before him are a number of pitchers. Another cadet sits equally straight behind the table; we can’t tell whether he’s another victim perched just as uncomfortably or the perpetrator. He’s looking down impassively at something in his hands, hidden behind one of the pitchers. Is he going through an ordeal of his own or keeping tabs on the other boy’s moment of suffering? His agony is so intense it cries out to us to right the situation, especially since he’s going through it with such silent, almost stylized dignity. Ultimately, though, he knows he’s in his own private hell–as we all are.
Eisenstaedt shows us the private hells of the high and mighty just as forthrightly, and these are no less painful to witness. Ernest Hemingway gives us the writer looking out in what should be a confident close-up; instead he looks lost and unsure, as if he were asking us for the answers to the larger questions of life. His arms are wrapped together on top of a lectern, his hair is combed carefully into place–but to what avail? His neatness is belied by those haunted eyes.
Other celebrity photos also offer insights into artists’ private worlds. In George Bernard Shaw the writer is immersed in paperwork, suddenly interrupted for the mundane task of a portrait–and he clearly resents the waste of time. In a sardonic close-up, one eye is almost closed, but he’s opened the other wide: old and wizened, Shaw is not only wise but oracular. He’s seen the future and he knows it’s not going to work. Robert Frost offers homespun casualness: he sits on a cloth-covered chair working at a makeshift table propped up with a stick tied to the tabletop with a string. Tousled white hair adds to his look of utter concentration. It’s as if everything around him–bookcases, armchairs, windows, paintings–has disappeared: everything but what’s before him on that board, which he must give himself over to.
Tennessee Williams shows us a young man seated at his desk in front of a typewriter: apparently successful, prosperous, confident in suit and tie, his jacket hung casually on the chair back. Yet he also has that haunted look, as if he’s just been searching the room for material. Booze bottles tucked away among the books are telling, as haunting as the fact that his body is placed to try to obscure the bottles. We sense we’re prying, ever curious, trying to analyze creativity and its source. Moreover, all those rows of books behind Williams–like the plays already behind him–can’t serve to inspire him, or shed any more light.
Some things gain power through their very mystery. Artistry–when it’s not the obvious mastery of technique–impresses us exactly because we don’t know where it comes from. We can merely guess at it, and sometimes the answers come with hindsight in half-truths. The depiction of those moments of creation–recognized and captured for posterity–somehow and for some reason moves us tremendously. It’s a gut-level reaction.
Sometimes the knowledge we bring to a work of art makes it even more poignant. The subject of Robert Kennedy is young and eager to please, his brow furrowed sincerely; he’s gazing up, surrounded by a crowd of reporters with mikes. His impending assassination brands the image with a lost idealism; it’s the burden of history to sometimes provide more answers than we want. Eisenstaedt frames those moments in history, whether private or public, with a subtle, personal relevance. It’s an act that has the force of faith moving mountains.