Alfred Eisenstaedt said his famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square,was "accidental, no more preplanned than any of the 1 million pictures he estimated he took during a 68-year career. Actually, on VJ Day in 1945, Eisenstaedt noticed a swabbie smoothing his way through the crowd. He tagged along until a woman in white--in contrast to the sailor's near black-- came along. Persistence, luck, click: one of the great news photographs of all time.
Eisenstaedt, who died at 96 last week on Martha's Vineyard off Massachusetts, led a mostly lucky life. Born Dec. 6, 1898, in Prussia, he returned from a vacation in 1927 with a shot of a tennis player. At a friend's suggestion, he managed to sell it to Der Weltspeigel. By 1929 he'd quit his job as a button salesman and become a photojournalist. Eisenstaedt shot Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and the first meeting of Hitler and Mussolini in Venice before immigrating to the United States in 1985. A year later he became one of the original staff photographers at Life magazine, where, for the next four decades (86 covers, 2,000 assignments), he practically defined the magazine.
The 5-foot-4 Eisenstaedt said, "You have to have manners, you have to blend in." Little Leica in hand, he could put his subjects--from J. Robert Oppenheimer to Marilyn Monroe--at ease with a smooth flow of customized small talk. But he was tough. He once tamed a braying Ernest Hemingway (who thought himself buff enough to be shirtless on a Life cover) by bouncing a knife off his own flexed bicep. Eisenstaedt said photography was all about seeing, but he was, almost slyly, a fastidious technician, too. Cornell Capa, director emeritus of the International Center of Photography, says, "His composition was perfect. You did not have to crop his pictures. And he could find just the right key for a story."
If there is, among critics, a slight hedge about Eisenstaedt's place in the pantheon alongside the likes of Andre Kertesz and Henri Cartier-Bresson, it concerns Eisenstaedt's overriding niceness, and an occasional greeting-card sweetness in the work (those endearing kids, trailing the drum major). The only really scary photograph he ever took was of a glaring Joseph Goebbels, in 1933. Perhaps it's best to consider Eisenstaedt a kind of wedding photographer for the whole tumultuous 20th century. An invited guest, he stayed on long past the honeymoon, and told as much of the plain truth as he could without peeping through keyholes or breaking down doors.