New York

Alfred Eisenstaedt

I often think of an exhibition catalogue as being like the souvenir program one buys at a football game or a rock concert. It’s an appendage to the event, a memento. This is an attitude that comes from painting exhibitions, where the point is to see the original. At the International Center of Photography, however, this attitude is sometimes misleading. In the first place, much of the work ICP shows is photojournalism that was originally shot for reproduction, and it looks better in the book than on the wall. In the second place, the book is often not really a catalogue at all. Its publication is the occasion for the show, rather than the other way around. The exhibition is, to speak more plainly, a promotion for the book. There is nothing wrong with this practice. On the contrary, this symbiotic relationship is a healthy one. It permits photography that might not be seen otherwise to flourish. But I often have the feeling, after seeing a show at ICP, that I ought to review the book instead.

The Alfred Eisenstaedt show is a prime example. Called “Eisenstaedt: Germany,” it covers two phases of his career: the initial one up until 1935, when he left Germany for America, and 1979–80, when he returned for the first time. There are therefore no photographs in the show from his 40-year career as a staffer at Life; yet the mentality of the Life photographer used to having his work shaped by an editor is very much in evidence here. This is why the book (New York: Harry N. Abrams) looms larger than the show. I don’t know whether Eisenstaedt acted as his own editor and sequenced the pictures this time, or left that work to Gregory A. Vitiello, who first proposed the return to Germany as an occasion for a new Eisenstaedt book. Either way, in the book the pictures have more of a conception behind them, more purpose. In the show, they suffer from the lack of this kind of editorial treatment. They lose all their zip.

In the book’s introduction Vitiello quotes Eisenstaedt as saying, “I don’t see Germany with political eyes. I see pictures.” It must be Vitiello, then, who has edited the pictures from the ’20s and ’30s so that their portrait of Germany has heavy political overtones. With the advantage of hindsight, this collection of Eisenstaedt’s work is made to emphasize the German tendency toward regimentation, which, it’s now almost cliche to say, made Nazism possible. More than emphasize this tendency, the book positively burlesques it. In one picture, all the poets at a meeting of the Poets Academy sit with their arms and legs crossed. In the next, students at a school for carriage drivers sit at desks with reins and whips in their hands. Then, a corps de ballet cocks its legs in unison like a Walt Disney centipede. Rows of midwives with shiny faces listen to a lecture. A row of papas replicate each other’s expressions as they beam at their babies. In the final picture, men who have given up smoking suck on babies’ pacifiers. Each picture relies on the general decline into infantilism.

These people are all stock characters, passengers on a ship of fools, but among them we do catch a glimpse of a Nazi now and then. The 1929 meeting of the Swedish Academy at which Thomas Mann is being given the Nobel Prize is followed by a 1933 meeting of the League of Nations Assembly, at which one of the German representatives seated with the rest of his delegation is the lizard-eyed Joseph Goebbels. In another picture a bust of Beethoven in Beethovenhaus has beneath it a wreath of homage on whose ribbon is a swastika. True to the spirit of picture magazines, instead of leaving the discovery of the swastika to us, a caption points it out and tells a little anecdote about it.

The pictures made in ’79–’80 don’t contain such concise stereotypes as Eisenstaedt’s earlier work. This is partly because we are too close to the present to see who the stereotypes are. To compensate for this, the book has a long middle passage in which early pictures are alternated with the new ones to lend the latter power. A picture of a pensive girl sitting among fallen leaves in a cemetery is pretty schlocky, for instance. But when it is placed next to a 1934 picture of Reichs Chancellor Franz von Papen wearing a black armband in mourning for Hindenburg, and the caption tells us that the cemetery is a Jewish one in which Eisenstaedt’s father is buried, the new photograph seems to gain stature. It becomes part of a human interest story, the kind that Life used to be so good at.

The premise of this story is the editorial concept on which Eisenstaedt: Germany is based, the idea of the photographer’s return. The implicit statement of both the book and the exhibition is that the photojournalist himself is the ultimate subject, the real hero of the pictures he spends a lifetime making. If the concept doesn’t seem to be as forceful in the execution here as it should have been, that’s because neither the photographs nor the photographer were quite as colorful as the story needed them to be.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.