In the early 1990s, Garry did 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 and Lois Maillou Jones was in her mid 80s. It was a great moment when Eisie told Lois she was “just a kid.” We laughed then, but time has changed our perspective.
I had been an admirer of Eisenstadt’s work as long as I’d been taking pictures. I took my first ever roll of film on Martha’s Vineyard in 1966. I had stayed at the Menemsha Inn where (it turned out — a wild case of serendipity) Eisenstadt lived from late spring till Labor Day. Books of Eisie’s work — that was what everyone called him and he preferred it — were all over the inn, in bookcases and on tables. Most featured Eisie’s landscapes of Martha’s Vineyard.
I was using my first camera, a Practika with a great Zeiss 50mm lens, but no light meter, nothing even slightly automatic. It had a crank film advance, a barebones camera. Perfect for a beginner. I had to learn how to take pictures, how to take a light reading with a handheld meter. I had to focus it myself.
No zoom lens — no other lenses at all. Just a single f2.8 50 mm prime and no flash. My feet did the zooming, God did the lighting. I learned the basics of photography many people of the digital generation never learn. Most of today’s photographers have never used a non-automatic camera much less a hand-held meter. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But maybe it does.
The camera was a gift from a friend who had moved on to more modern and expensive gear. With that Zeiss lens and a good eye, I followed Eisenstadt’s path. I discovered where he’d taken each picture, figured out how he’d gotten the perspective, framed it, and not only duplicated his shots down to the clump of grass he’d crouched behind to create a foreground, I also added a few ideas that worked out well. Surprising because I was winging it.
My first roll of film was declared brilliant. It was, except that the photographs were Alfred Eisenstadt‘s pictures reproduced by me on my camera. I learned photography by following his footsteps and seeing what he saw. By the time I was done, I’d gained a whole education. The technical stuff took … is still taking … the rest of my life. I was good in a darkroom with black and white film, but Photoshop has been an ongoing challenge.
As we got to know Eisie better, I asked him to autograph his books for me and he did, but he didn’t merely autograph them. He went through each book, photograph by photograph. He was in his early 90s and forgot many things, but he remembered every picture he’d taken, including which film and camera he was using, what lens was on it, the F-stop and most important, what he was thinking as he shot it. He could remember exactly what it was about the image that grabbed his attention. It was an education money could never buy.
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 and he saw them, the dark of the sailor’s uniform against the white of the nurse’s dress and he shot. He knew it was what he wanted. The light, the contrast, perfect. Great street journalism looks accidental … but it isn’t. It’s, in my opinion, the most difficult of all the various types of photography because you have to see your shot and grab it, get it right the first time. If you miss it, it’s gone. No second chances.
Were we close friends? Close enough I guess, considering the late date at which we entered his life. At that point in his life, he spent most of his time in the company of Lulu, his former sister-in-law who took care of him. She was a lovely, warm, sweet lady who sometimes needed an afternoon off. We were happy to Eisie-sit and let her go to town for an afternoon. Eisie was interesting and funny, but high maintenance. He did not suffer from a lack of ego.
We spent time with him every summer for about five years until he died, and we were honored to be among those invited to the funeral which was closed to the public. Although it was sad because Eisie was gone, we also found things to laugh about. Knowing him was special and some memories are worth a laughter. I don’t think he’d have minded.