Travels with Alfred: On Assignment with One of the World's Great Photographers
THE OBITUARIES FOR ALFRED EISENSTAEDT have long since come and gone. They told us a lot about the pictures, as they should have, because any photographer is his pictures. This was especially true of Eisenstaedt. Beyond an accumulated amazement and delight in the pictures that I share with everybody who cares about photography, I find myself still in possession of a relic - Eisie's second-best light meter - and the memory of two stories we worked on together a half-century ago.
The first occurred in the spring of 1955.
Eisie came from New York, I came from Life's Paris bureau, and we met at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Our assignment was to report on Judaism for a Life series on the world's great religions. I was new to the magazine, a young correspondent not long out of college. I'd heard of Eisenstaedt, of course. He was one of the world's great photographers, one of Life's "founding" four, born in Prussia, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, celebrated for a candid picture of Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels in the 1930s, and for the VJ Day sailorkisses-nurse shot, which celebrated its 60th anniversary in August and has become one of the most famous pictures in the world.
I also came to know the office Eisie stories, some of them possibly true. The one about a Life correspondent, back in New York after years overseas, who meets Eisie in the magazine's New York office. "Hello, Eisie," he says.
"Hello," says Eisie. "You haven't seen me for a while, have you?"
The one about a reporter on assignment deep in the Everglades who finds himself marching for hours ahead of Eisie's brand-new Oldsmobile convertible, arms outstretched to be sure the car is not scratched by encroaching underbrush. And of course, the oldest photographer story in the world, the one in which Eisie excitedly tells about a poor old hag, hungry and dirty and desperate, whom he's just seen on Sixth Avenue. Comes the question "What did you give her, Eisie?" And the answer:
"f-11 at a 60th. It was cloudy/overcast."
In those days relations between Life photographers and (especially young) Life reporters were symbiotic but tendentious. Besides reporting, reporters carried the extra cameras, hired the cars, booked the hotels, set up the appointments, kept captions on what was being shot, bribed the customs men, and shipped off the undeveloped film to New York. The photographers, at the top of one of the most demanding and competitive professions in the world, took the pictures without which there would be no story - and no magazine. But there were times in the field when that fact wasn't exactly uppermost in a reporter's mind. Usually just released from some place of higher learning, hired mostly for precocious writing skills, young reporters often tended to patronize the photographers who had reached eminence in another time and in other ways, as the children of immigrants sometimes patronize their parents.
Orthodox Judaism as practiced in 1955 in the new state of Israel was a touchy subject, especially for photojournalists, since the Orthodox were dead set against graven images. Although only 10 percent of the population was Orthodox, it had enormous influence. The country was under a deadly threat from the Arab world; conservative Jews didn't think any religious person should serve in the army or, in some cases, that Israel should have an army at all. I remember arguing with a rabbi, noting that only the country's soldiers stood between him and possible annihilation. Not a bit perturbed, he said, "We were not told we lost the temple because we couldn't fight, but because we didn't keep the law."
As a Waspy lapsed Episcopalian who knew little about Judaism, I expected that Eisie had been chosen for the story in part because he knew something about the religion and might be able to converse with people a bit where English would not do. New York doubtless thought that, too. They were misinformed.
We started in before Purim and stayed till well after Passover. We watched and Eisie photographed kids playing Queen Esther and King Ahasuerus, rattling papers and shouting, deliriously breaking things up whenever the name of evil Haman was mentioned (Haman wanted to do away with all Jews) . "It stinks of chauvinism, but the children love it," their pretty young teacher said, with a sweet, rueful smile.
We tramped the streets of Jerusalem to find the outdoor ovens where young men burnt piles of chametz (leavened bread) in the street getting ready for Passover. An Israeli diplomat invited us to a Seder feast given by his married sister in their conservative father's house. Some days later I went back to talk to her about it and what it meant to her young children. She answered patiently, but as we parted she said sadly, "It's always like trying to warm your hands in the ashes of a dead fire."
In a beat-up 1948 Chrysler we crisscrossed the country, north to Safad, where as daylight faded we sat in a temple while elders discussed the Talmud and shared memories of village life in Poland. We spent Friday night and Saturday at a kibbutz, where I got a chance to be a shabbat goy, doing something or other about their hydroponically grown tomatoes. We drove down to the green Sea of Galilee and later descended to the banks of the Dead Sea, where bags of exportable potash were piled high. There we listened to an oft-told story about Chief Rabbi Herzog who had visited the potash works with his then schoolboy son Jacob shortly after coming to Israel following years serving as the rabbi of Ireland. The boy, dressed in black with skullcap and side curls, skipped among the sacks of potash as the elders talked to Herzog. Then suddenly an excited piping voice called out, "Glory be to God and to his Holy Mother, Father, there's one here goin' to Dublin."
I had expected to dislike Israel. As an American born in England and brainwashed by the English Speaking Union during World War II, I was irreparably pro-British. Green in memory was my outrage at seeing Ben Hecht's Zionist play A Flag Is Born, with its raw last line, shocking in those innocent times when verbal savagery was still rare: "Whenever a British soldier dies, a Jew does a little dance in his heart." Much more shocking, too, was the murder by Israeli militants of Count Bemadotte as he tried to negotiate a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians, an act of political terrorism of a kind, alas, now all too familiar. Gradually, though, Israel in the spring of 1955 became a country, one of the few, that I would have gladly lived in because of its spirit alone.
Perhaps this was partly because I had lately spent time in several Arab countries where - at least on the subject of the new Jewish state - humor, nuance, or understanding were in short supply. Drive them into the sea was their motto. In marked contrast to Israel. Once I remarked to a junior officer in the Israeli Foreign Ministry how surprising it seemed that so many people I struck up conversations with would mention that Egypt's Nasser was subject to pressures, which made it hard for him to pursue a policy (i.e., recognition) that the Israelis wanted. "Yes," he said, a bit tersely, "but we probably can't afford to go on psychoanalyzing our enemies."
At night I was racing through the Books of Esther and Deuteronomy, during the day inquiring about phylacteries and wedding rituals. Eisie would later write, "You learn something from every picture you take." But there was no sign here that the learning had anything to do with the subject at hand. Eisie, I saw, disliked every minute of working on the story. He knew absolutely nothing about Judaism or the history of Israel. "Tim! Tim!" he would say, disapprovingly, in his stagy German accent. "Why do they wear those silly curls?" Otherwise he said little, rarely asked questions of anybody.
In Paris, shortly before setting out on the Judaism story, I had been talking with Gjon Mili, another great photographer, about John Ruskin and how he used to stop his carriage to make laborious accurate pencil sketches of flowers. If Ruskin had had a Leica, I wondered, what would have happened? Mili was a lofty personage, and I expected him to make some monumental claim for photography as art, but all he said was "Ruskin would have wound up with a trunk full of contact sheets." That was my view, too, at the time. A disparaging view of quickly snapped pictures as a way of laying lasting hands on the world, at least without a big supporting network of words and ideas. In Israel, I thought, Eisie was simply adding to his trunk of contact sheets.
In those days I had great faith in words and the airing of intellect. As I've grown older I've come to prize - more than the thousands of run-of-the-mill words I've committed to print - a bare handful of images I've made on film or in pen-and-ink sketches. When Eisie later told an interviewer, "I see pictures all the time. I think like this," he was saying it all.
Because he was Eisenstaedt, his pictures were fine. I particularly remember one of a scholar, bearded, hatted, clad in black, studying the Talmud on a balcony in Safad, with the spring-green land stretching away, down toward the Sea of Galilee. I recall another of a scribe backed by hundreds and hundreds of scrolls, fragments of Torahs saved from European synagogues destroyed by the Nazis, painstakingly piecing them together. Except when he was taking a picture, Eisie acted like a cat with damp paws. Only once that I remember did he show that he'd ever heard of the Bible. As the Chrysler groaned up a rocky hill on the way to Tel Aviv, he said, "Tim. Now I know why so many people in the Bible were stoned." And he grinned.
In retrospect I realized that he was doing one of his first color assignments - a man with a matchless eye for black and white who always held (correctly in my view) that color is a far inferior photographic medium. Still, if I had been wiser and less critical, or if he had been a man more inclined to talk, we might have found a way to enjoy working on the story together. We might have been able to discuss the problem of maintaining an absolute religion in a relative world and how well ritual serves that purpose, or perhaps talk about the reason why he disliked the story so. He did tell me that he had been badly wounded and won an Iron Cross at Passchendaele in 1918. He did not say, but I knew, that successful German Jewish families often thought, with good reason, that they were Germans - until Hitler came.
I only twice glimpsed the kind of stony grip he brought to picture taking - once at the edge of the Mea Shearim (Jerusalem's ultra-orthodox conclave) when a religious man as huge, wild-eyed, and terrifying as Thomas Hart Benton's scary portrait of John Brown, loomed over us. He held a large rock in both hands above his head and seemed about to smash it down on Eisie, who had his Leica at chest level. But he did not take a picture. He simply stared back and did not budge until the giant dropped the stone and grumped away, muttering.
Our last stop for the story was a wedding among Kurdistani Jews at a tin-roofed temporary settlement on the hills outside Jerusalem. This visit was to illustrate the "Ingathering of the Exiles," a policy of the Jewish state - and its ministry of religious affairs.
Male guests were dressed in army khakis. They all seemed to carry .45-caliber Browning automatics, with which I knew from personal experience it is impossible to hit the broad side of a barn. They drank and yelled a lot and began waving the guns around and shooting into the air. I was deafened a couple of times and began thinking it would be funny to end a promising career because of being shot inadvertently by a drunken Kurdistani Jew at a wedding. Eisie, however, had found a spot he liked, and with grudging admiration I realized that hell and its angels would not budge him till he had taken the picture he wanted. He waited, grinding his teeth, because the figures kept moving and the light was fading fast. One of the anguishing aspects of being a Life photographer, I came to understand, was attempting to put body English on the world-an act of sheer will.
The story worked out all right, but we parted dissatisfied with each other. I thought he had performed some sort of prefrontal lobotomy on himself. He thought me impatient, pedagogic, and damned poor company, all of which was true enough. It was a surprise when, a year or so later, clearly having a choice in the matter, he appeared in Paris to do a long essay I'd suggested on the city of Lourdes.
This new assignment resembled the Israel story in that it was about full-blooded religion: a triumph of the spirit or superstition or simple human need, or maybe all three. The Catholic church, embarrassed by claims of miraculous cures, had long since instituted skeptical and stringent standards to dispose of such claims and had cleaned out the forest of crutches that once hung over the blackened grotto where in 1858 Bernadette Soubirous saw her vision of the lady in white.
When we got to Lourdes, the crowds of sick pilgrims and the constant en bloc praying ("Je vous salue Marie, pleine de grace") and the sheer commerce did not make Alfred uneasy. (I had begun to call him Alfred, which I learned was what he preferred. Perhaps that helped.) In any case, though he rarely seemed curious about what was going on around us, he was enthusiastic and tireless and at 56 wore me out in the pursuit of pictures. He told me that he did 50 pushups every morning before breakfast to keep in shape. I remember him running across a roof and jumping up on a stone parapet that I (six inches taller and 30 years younger) could barely reach. When I'd propose getting back to the hotel, he'd refuse, remarking, "As my sainted mother used to say, 'Alfred, plenty of time to rest in the grave.''' Another of Mother Eisenstaedt's favorites was, "Alfred! A change is most usually for der wurse."
Our particular focus was a pilgrim group of about 20 Americans from Uvalde, Texas, mostly well-dressed, middle-aged matrons with blued hair, seeking cures and shepherded by a young, redheaded Irish doctor. After a few days, with what then seemed to me to be characteristic New World impatience and self-pity, some of them began expressing hurt surprise because, after coming so far, they had not had even one miracle amongst them. I asked the doctor about his charges. "They look fine," he said. "But in strictly medical terms, by next year this time there won't be enough of them to fill the cockpit of a Piper Cub." As to whether he thought there might be a miracle, he said not. Would he bring someone he loved here, someone whose illness had defied all attempts to cure it? "Probably not," he said, then added firmly: "But if you're asking me whether I believe in the possibility of miracles, I do."
We visited the man who had the candle concession for Bernadette's grotto. His largest candle was four-feet tall and 12 inches in diameter. We visited young Dr. Soubirous, a prosperous descendant of the saint's once-impoverished family. Pilgrims and tourists, he complained, often made a medical appointment, but clearly with miraculous cures in mind; once in his office, they'd ask to touch him. He seemed mortally offended, just at the recollection: "C'est du fétishisme ça!" he exclaimed.
Only once did Alfred offer a real comment on what we saw and heard going on around us. This occurred when we found ourselves one morning at breakfast in the Golgotha Hotel (no less) with a group of German pilgrims. Alfred sat silent throughout the meal, listening intently. But when we went up to the room to collect our gear for the day's shooting, he had an urgent need to talk. "I know them all," he said. "All of them around the table." And with devastating precision he went round the table, saying how this one or that one would have behaved in Germany in the early 1930s. He made delicate distinctions in predicting their behavior. The only one I remember applied to a jolly-looking woman at the far end of the table. "She would be one to wring her hands and say, 'Oh, it's terrible what's happening.' And then go down and inform on you."
When the story was complete, before going back to Paris, we climbed to the top of a nearby Pyrenees peak and had lunch beside a brook so cold that just dipping your fingers in it made the whole hand ache. I had begun to use a camera, not on stories (it was sensibly frowned on) but at home, and at his request I had taken a picture of him at work near the stained-glass window of a Lourdes church. After lunch he reached in his bag and handed me a light meter. ''You have this," he said firmly. I gratefully used his gift long after the time when most cameras came with built-in light meters, and I have it now in a small drawer filled with defunct treasures: including my mother's fountain pen, circa 1903; my brother's 1941 slide rule; a metal plate with check-off lists for "Take Offs" and "Landings", salvaged from a Grumman F6F Hellcat that crashed on the flight deck of my carrier on May 27th 1945. My scratched note on its back adds: "120 miles south of Okinawa."
Alfred and I never worked another story together. I went on to become a Life editor in New York, then switched to Time. He went right on being the greatest black-and-white photographer in the world and managed to work practically until his death in 1995 at age 96. When word of it reached me, inevitably I heard the sound of his voice, back in the city of miracles, mimicking his mother as she said, "Alfred. Plenty of time to rest in the grave."