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 50-mm 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. My 50 mm lens was a prime. No zoom. I think zoom lenses were not common back then. Actually, I’m not sure they had been invented. I’ll have to look that up and find out. Regardless, it was a fine piece of glass and pretty fast at f2.8.
The camera had just one lens, so when I wanted a close up, I ran towards my subject. If I needed a wide shot, I’d 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. It turned out if you forgot your meter, you could use the suggested settings 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. We get dependent on them, so we think we need them. We don’t.
Maybe it doesn’t matter but 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 for the minor detail that most of them were my versions of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s originals. 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.
When I actually met Alfred Eisenstaedt, it was one of the most exciting days of my life.
Eisenstadt was not at the Inn when we were there, but his books were all over the the Inn. I bought a few and they became my guide to photography. I went every place on the island where he had taken pictures and I copied each picture. Literally, I figured out exactly where he had stood — or crouched — to get each shot. It was a very basic camera with a great 50 mm Zeiss lens. It had no light meter, so I had to take a reading using a handheld Weston 5 light-meter. or use the paper “meter” in the Kodak film box. It gave a list of what settings you needed for different lighting situations.
So, I had to focus the lens, set the shutter speed and f-stop. Make sure I’d set the film speed correctly. You only had to set film speed once when you loaded the film. Unlike digital cameras, a roll of film was the same speed until you ran out of film. There weren’t a lot of settings to learn on this camera, but they were and are to this day, the basics of photography. No matter how many settings they add to camera menus, if you know these few items, you can get along well.
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 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 became 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 thrilling. I had been an admirer of Eisenstaedt’s work for years. His pictures were all over the magazines with which I grew up.
I asked him to autograph his books for me. He didn’t merely autograph them. He went through each book, picture by picture and told me what camera he’d used, what film, the lens, what inspired the shot. I wanted to know how he’d managed — in Nazi Germany — to become Hitler’s photographer. His portraits of Goebbels makes you really feel the guy and it’s not a nice feeling. Eisenstadt said Goebbels had the eyes of a killer, flat and hard. That sounded about right. He was in his nineties and had forgotten many things, but remembered every picture.
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.
The thing that brought this story up again was realizing that I can identify my own pictures that way. I look at it and I remember the camera, the lens, what inspired the photograph. Every photograph is like a deep dive into my past. I was wondering how many other photographers or artists can remember details of their finished work. I’m betting this is more common than one might think.
What do YOU think?