Garry and I used to vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, sharing a house on with a bunch of other people from Boston TV stations.
In the early 1990s, Garry was assigned a feature about Alfred Eisenstadt and Lois Maillou Jones, both of whom lived on the Vineyard and had been given Presidential Medals of Honor for their work. We became friends with both artists. Eisenstadt was in his early 90s, Lois Maillou Jones in her mid 80s.
I had been an admirer of Eisenstadt’s work as long as I’d been taking pictures. I shot my first roll of film on Martha’s Vineyard in 1966. I had stayed at the Menemsha Inn where (serendipity!!) Eisenstadt lived from late spring till Labor Day. Books of Eisie’s work were all over the inn. In bookcases, on tables. Most of the books featured his landscapes of Martha’s Vineyard.
I was using my first camera, a Practika with a great Zeiss 50mm lens. Great lens, but no electronic light meter. No electronic or automatic anything. It had a crank film advance. A bare bones camera with a Zeiss lens. I had half a dozen rolls of black and white film.
It was the ideal situation for a beginner. I had to learn how to take a light reading with a handheld meter. I had to focus the lens, set the shutter speed, the f-stop, and choose the film speed — though you only had to set film speed once each time you loaded the camera.
It wasn’t a lot of settings to learn, but they were and are the essentials of photography. If you can take a light reading, set film speed (now ISO), understand shutter speed, depth of field, and see when a picture is in focus — and you recognize a picture when you see it — you’re home free. Everything else is dessert.
Photo by Alfred Eisenstadt
My 50 mm lens was a prime. No zoom. It was a good piece of glass and moderately fast at f2.8. No flash, either.
If I wanted a close up, I could move closer to what I was shooting. A wide shot? Go back! I learned photography in a way those who’ve only used digital cameras never will learn. Most of today’s photographers have never held a camera without auto-focus, much less taken a reading with a hand-held meter.
Maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it does.
The camera was a gift from a friend who had bought a new camera. Armed with the Practika and determination, I followed Eisenstadt’s path around the Vineyard. I discovered where he’d taken each picture, figured out how he’d gotten the perspective, framed it.
I duplicated his shots down to the clump of grass behind which he’d crouched to create a foreground. I added a few twists of my own. I was winging it, but I winged well.
My first roll of film was brilliant — except the photographs were copies of Alfred Eisenstadt’s. He taught me photography by giving me foot prints to follow. By the time I was done with those first rolls of film, I had learned the fundamentals. I’m still learning.
Photo by Alfred Eisenstadt
When I actually met Alfred Eisenstadt, it was the most exciting moment of my life.
As we got to know Eisie better, I asked him to autograph his books for me. He didn’t merely autograph them. He went through each book, picture by picture.
He was in his early 90s and had forgotten many things, but remembered every picture he’d taken, including the film and camera, lens, F-stop, and most important, what he was thinking as he shot. He could remember exactly what it was about the image that grabbed his attention.
For example, the picture of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day, he said he was walking around Times Square with his Nikon. When he spotted the dark of the sailor’s uniform against the white of the nurse’s dress, he knew it was what he wanted and shot. Light, contrast, composition.
We spent time with him every summer for 5 years until he passed. We were honored to be among those invited to the funeral. Although we were sad that Eisie was gone, we found things to laugh about. Knowing him was special and some memories are worth a laugh. I don’t think Eisie would have minded.