What Celebrated Life Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt Brought with Him When He Fled the Nazis for the U.S.

Most people are familiar with the work of photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt. Think of the famous image of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square, New York City, at the end of World War II. Eisenstaedt was one of the first photographers hired in 1936 by the newly formed “Life” magazine, where he worked for the next 50-plus years; his photographs graced the cover a staggering 92 times. But most people do not know of the Jewish photographer’s career in Germany and his harrowing departure from the Nazis.

In 2016, as part of the generous $10 million gift for photography acquisitions from the Hall Family Foundation, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art acquired Alfred Eisenstaedt’s portfolio of work grabbed as he escaped his homeland. These 90 photographs, carefully packed into a suitcase, provide a comprehensive look at the pivotal time of 1928-1935, the critical years leading up to World War II. Eisenstaedt’s selections vary from a lighter look at European society, to tense diplomatic relationships between established royal monarchies, to the rise of the Nazis in Germany. Nearly a quarter of the images document the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. Eisenstaedt’s portfolio was later viewed by Henry Luce at “Life” magazine, resulting in his subsequent hiring.

Alfred Eisenstaedt was born in 1898 in Dirschau, West Prussia (Poland), the son of a successful merchant. In 1906, the family moved to Berlin, where the Eisenstaedts lived a comfortable life; Alfred was educated at the Hohenzollern Gymnasium and attended the University of Berlin. After the outbreak of World War I, he was drafted as a field artillery cannoneer but sustained serious injuries to both legs in 1918. When he returned to Berlin to convalesce, he resumed his childhood hobby — photography.

Eisenstaedt’s homecoming coincided with the Golden Era of the Weimar period in Germany. Thanks to the provisional democratic government, the German economy was stabilized and cultural life flourished. Great advancements were made in art, literature, music, theater, science, architecture, mass media and film. Photography — considered a modernist medium — was enjoyed by a wide swath of German amateurs. The dozens of illustrated magazines fueled the public’s appetite for images. Bitten by the “photo bug,” Eisenstaedt photographed obsessively, selling his first photograph in 1927.

As a member of the privileged German class, Eisenstaedt easily gained access to upscale public venues. Sporting a black tie and tails, he photographed celebrities like Marlene Dietrich — scandalously dressed in a tuxedo — attending a ball at a ritzy hotel. In 1929, the Eisenstaedt family lost their savings because of the Great Depression, and Alfred was forced to work as a button salesman. He continued to sell photographs, however, including an image of the Paris ballet, where he compared the lighting to that of the Great Masters. Proving to be a terrible salesman, Eisenstaedt quit to focus on photography, working as a freelancer for the Associated Press (AP) under picture editor Leon Daniel. Eisenstaedt was sent on assignments all over the world, including annual trips to posh vacation spots like St. Moritz. There, he photographed celebrities and the well-to-do skiing, ice skating and sunbathing.

Back in Berlin, Hitler had risen to power, and his anti-Semitic rhetoric was everywhere. The Editor’s Law, passed in October 1933, mandated that workers in the editorial profession be Aryan. The AP, headed by Louis Lochner, was under mounting pressure to dismiss Jewish employees. But Lochner was unyielding, saying that the staff “are efficient, they are honest, they are splendid characters, they are well educated and speak three and four languages. There is no reason in the world outside of the accident of their having been born Jews why I should fire them . . . I simply refused.” Even as the Nazis were looking to remove him, Eisenstaedt was busy photographing them. Hitler’s first meeting with Mussolini in Venice, just two weeks before he became Führer of the Reich, was taken by Jewish photographer Eisenstaedt.

By 1935, things were increasingly tense. The Reich issued lists of approved photojournalists directly to local newsrooms. An article in an SS newspaper exposed the employment of two Jewish employees at the AP, Eisenstaedt’s boss, Leon Daniel, and his assistant, Cecile Kutschuk. Although Eisenstaedt was not directly named, the implications were obvious. Fortunately, for much of 1935, Eisenstaedt was kept busy on assignment away from Germany. He traveled to Ethiopia to cover the pending invasion of Italy. Appalled at the condition of the Ethiopian army — barefoot and armed with spears — Eisenstaedt made a series of photographs of the army, its leaders, people, ceremonies, places of commerce and countryside. This type of photographic essay would later form the basis of photojournalism in America.

By November 1935, danger was imminent. Armed with his suitcase of photographs, Eisenstaedt made the long trip from Germany to New York and became one of the most prolific photographers at “Life” magazine.

Visit art.nelson-atkins.org/collections to view the Eisenstaedt photographs in the Nelson-Atkins collection.

Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

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