A FLASHBACK FRIDAY POST FROM 2015 – UPDATED
The first time I went to the Vineyard, it was a honeymoon to my first husband. It was 1965. I didn’t know anything about the Vineyard. I hadn’t even known it existed. We were looking for somewhere interesting to go that we could afford. It’s funny to realize in 1965, Martha’s Vineyard was a relatively inexpensive place to vacation. Now, it will cost 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 the same 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 and was using my first camera. It was absolutely basic. No electronics. No automatic anything. A hand-cranked film advance on a bare-bones camera.
The camera had just one lens – an f2.8 Zeiss 50mm standard prime. If 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 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 95% of the time.
We don’t need all the widgets in our cameras’ menus. We think we need them because camera manufacturers want us to think we need them. We don’t.
My first camera was a gift from a friend who’d bought a new camera. It would be an antique today. My how old I’ve gotten!
Armed with that camera and a dozen rolls of black and white film, I followed Eisenstaedt’s path. I went to the places on the island where he’d 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. It listed the settings for most kinds of light. After a while, I didn’t need the paper. I could look at the light and know the setting I’d need. I have lost that ability because everything is so automated now, I’m not even sure I could set it up. 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. You do need a basic understanding of light and how your camera works. It’s not as hard as you might think. The menus in cameras are ridiculous and include much more “stuff” than most of us will ever use.I don’t even know what most of those setting are supposed to do.
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 just 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 were the fundamentals. No matter how many settings they add to menus, if you know those 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 from the best. 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 them lived on Martha’s Vineyard and both had recently received Presidential Medals of Honor from then-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 too can identify my pictures that way. I look at any one of them and I will remember what I was thinking, where I was, and usually, what camera I had — though I have changed cameras many times, so that might elude me. I will, however, remember the lens and what inspired me. 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 bet this is quite common.
I often feel that Eisie taught me photography. He didn’t do it personally, but his pictures showed me the way. That’s what matters.
Categories: #FlashbackFriday, #gallery, #Photography, Anecdote, Cameras, Light and Lights, Personal
I was just thinking that you ought to tell that story on the podcast Marilyn although I would get it if you didn’t want to be in front of the camera. I wouldn’t.
Mum showed me how to use a camera, she had a box camera, an Agfa. The main thing I remember her telling me is “always have the sun behind you” Mum was not really into photography but she liked to have family photos and that’s what she used it for.
Later I learned about exposure settings from the Kodak film boxes and about f stops etc later when i met David. After a while it got so that I didn’t really have to look, I knew what I needed to do.
Yes, it’s a very good story — and true too. But it isn’t media. It’s something else. If they ask, no problem. But it’s not actually quite the same thing. It’s great story, though.
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Marilyn, this is a TERRIFIC ‘war story’ – equal or better than any of the tales shared by your former TV news hubby and our mutual friend, Tom, who regale in celeb stories.
“Eizy” was a charming and funny fella when we became friends on the Vineyard. He was the epitome of living history.
I’ll never forget that luncheon — ‘Eizy’ and actress Patricia Neal – on our Vineyard cottage back porch. Thumbing through scrapbooks and magazines, name dropping and ‘one upping’ each other on their relationships with other legends. What a blast!
How young we were AND how alive. That was a great party!