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.
We stayed at the Menemsha Inn, which is on the west side of the island. It turned out that this was 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 and was using my first camera which was absolutely basic. No electronics. No automatic anything. A hand-cranked film advance on a bare-bones camera.
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 people who’ve only used digital cameras with zoom lenses can’t imagine. Most of today’s photographers have never held a camera that doesn’t include auto-focus, much less taken a manual light reading. Back then, if you forgot your hand-held meter or didn’t want to bother using it, you could use the settings suggested on the little paper inserted with rolls of Kodak film. After a while, you could set your camera by eyeballing the light and you’d get it right 90% of the time.
We don’t 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 about 10 rolls of black and white film, I followed Eisenstaedt’s path.
I went to all the places on the island where he had taken pictures. I copied each picture. I figured out where he stood — or crouched — to get each shot. I didn’t own a hand-held light meter yet, so I depended on the paper “meter” in the Kodak box which listed the settings for most kinds of light. The best part was after a while, you didn’t need the paper. You could look at the light and know the setting you’d need.
No one needs all those electronic menu settings. If your eyes are in good shape, you can see it all in your head.
This is one of the things that I don’t like about digital cameras. You don’t need a thousand settings. but you do need a basic understanding of light and how your camera works. It’s not as hard as you might think. I find all those menu choices much more difficult to use.
I had to focus, set the shutter speed, and choose an f-stop. I didn’t need to change f-stops for each picture, either. I could pick one of in the middle of the light range in which I was shooting and alter the shutter as needed. If I was shooting landscapes, I merely needed to focus. The pictures would be fine.
I had to set the film speed correctly, but only once, when I loaded the film. A roll of film was the same speed until I ran out of film. There weren’t a lot of things to learn, but they remain the basics of photography. No matter how many settings they add to camera menus, if you know these three or four things and have a good eye, you’ll do fine. 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. And most of all, keep it simple.
When I actually met Alfred Eisenstaedt, it was one of the most exciting days of my life.
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 in the summer and both had recently received Presidential Medals of Honor from President Bush (the first). When the shoot ended, we became friends. Eisenstaedt was 93. Lois Maillou Jones was 86. He told her she was “just a kid.”
It was an incredible honor for me. Getting to know a man I’d been admiring for decades was thrilling. I had loved Eisenstaedt’s work. 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 published 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 were in his head. No camera will tell you what is a good or bad photograph.
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 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 photographic past. I wonder how many other photographers or artists can remember details of their finished work. I’m betting this is common.
I often feel that Eisie taught me photography. He didn’t, of course, but his pictures did. That’s what matters.