Born in 1898, Eisenstaedt was fascinated by photography from his youth and began taking pictures at the age of 14 when he was given his first camera, an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera with roll film. In 1927 Eisenstaedt sold his first photograph and at the time had no idea that professional photography even existed. Photojournalism was at its very infancy. Eisenstaedt began his free-lance career for Pacific and Atlantic Photos’ Berlin office in 1928. It was taken over by Associated Press in 1931. “Photojournalism had just started,” Eisenstaedt has remarked “and I knew very little about photography. It was an adventure, and I was always amazed when anything came out.”
Using cumbersome equipment with tripods and glass plate negatives, Eisenstaedt produced many photos on assignment of musicians, writers, and royalty. One famous photograph from 1932 depicts a waiter at the ice rink of the Grand Hotel. “I did one smashing picture,” Eisenstaedt has written, “of the skating headwaiter. To be sure the picture was sharp, I put a chair on the ice and asked the waiter to skate by it. I had a Miroflex camera and focused on the chair.”
Another very famous Eisenstaedt photograph reveals the opera house La Scala, Milan from 1934. Eisenstaedt was looking for the telling detail to place in the foreground of his image. “Suddenly,” he said, “I saw a lovely young society girl sitting next to an empty box. From that box I took another picture, with the girl in the foreground. For years and years this has been one of my prize photographs. Without the girl I would not have had a memorable picture.”
By 1935 Eisenstaedt had acquired a Rolleiflex camera and immigrated to America. A year later he became one of the original staff photographers for Life Magazine. By now, he was a master of the candid photograph.
Diminutive in stature, Eisenstaedt stood only slightly over five feet tall. He used a 2 1/4″ Rolleiflex “because you can hold a Rolleiflex without raising it to your eye; so they didn’t see me taking the pictures.” Eisenstaedt was speaking of the time he photographed American soldiers saying farewell to their wives and sweethearts in 1944 on assignment for Life. “I just kept motionless like a statue.” he said. “They never saw me clicking away. For the kind of photography I do, one has to be very unobtrusive and to blend in with the crowd.”