The first time I went to the Vineyard, it was my honeymoon — to my first husband and the year was 1965. I didn’t know anything about the Vineyard. I hadn’t even known it was there, but we were looking for somewhere interesting to go that we could afford. It’s funny to realize that in 1965, Martha’s Vineyard was a relatively inexpensive place to vacation. Now, it will cost you your first-born child and all your gold.
Jeff and I stayed at the Menemsha Inn, which is on the west side of the island. It turned out that this was also the place where Alfred Eisenstaedt spent his summer vacations. He had his own cabin and his books of photography were everywhere. I had just started to take pictures. I had my first camera loaded with black and white film. No electronic meter. No electronic anything. Manually loaded film and a hand-held light meter.
I was using my first camera, a Praktica with a brilliant Zeiss 50mm lens. It was a terrific lens. Otherwise, the camera was basic. No electronics or automatic anything. A hand-cranked film advance on a completely bare-bones camera. I had brought half a dozen rolls of black and white film with me. I used them all.
Eisenstadt was not at the Inn while we were there, but his books became my guide to photography. I went every place on the island where he had taken pictures and I copied each. Literally, I figured out exactly where he had stood — or crouched — to get each shot. To say it was illuminating doesn’t cover it. By the time I was through with that week’s vacation, I could take pictures.
The moral of the story? If you are going to copy, copy from the best.
In the summer of 1991, channel 7 let Garry do a feature about Alfred Eisenstaedt — world-famous photographer — and Lois Maillou Jones, world-famous painter. Both of them lived on Martha’s Vineyard. Both had recently received Presidential Medals of Honor from President Bush (the first).
When the shoot was over, we got to be friends with both artists. Eisenstaedt was 93. Lois Maillou Jones was 86. It was an incredible honor for us. For me, getting to really know a man I’d been admiring for decades was beyond thrilling.
I had been an admirer of Eisenstaedt’s work as long since before I began taking pictures.
It was ideal for a beginner. I had to take a light reading with a handheld meter. I had to focus the lens, set the shutter speed and f-stop. Choose the film speed — though you only had to set film speed once when you loaded the camera.
There weren’t a lot of settings to learn, but they were and remain the essentials of photography. My 50 mm lens was a prime. No zoom. It was a good piece of glass and moderately fast at f2.8.
If I wanted a close up, I could move in. Wide shot? Run the other way. I learned photography in a way that those who’ve only used digital cameras with zoom lenses can’t imagine. Most of today’s photographers have never so much as held a camera that doesn’t include auto-focus, much less taken a manual light reading. And if you forgot your meter, you could use the suggested setting on the little paper enclosure that came with Kodak film. After a while, you could set your camera pretty much by eyeballing the light and you’d get it right 90% of the time. We don’t actually need all the gadgets we use.
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 camera and determination, I followed Eisenstaedt’s path. I discovered where he’d taken each picture, figured out how he’d gotten the perspective. I duplicated his shots down to the clump of grass behind which he’d crouched to create a foreground.
My first roll of film was brilliant — except the photographs were copies of Alfred Eisenstaedt’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 the rest and I’ll probably never be finished.
When I actually met Alfred Eisenstaedt, 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 nineties and had forgotten many things, but remembered every picture he’d taken, including the film, 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 each summer until he passed in 1995. We were honored to be among those invited to the funeral. Although we were sad Eisie was gone, we found things to laugh about. Knowing him was special and some memories are worth a chuckle.
I don’t think Eisie would have minded.