Man of Many Faces : Photography: Through 70 years and a million pictures, Alfred Eisenstaedt has captured the celebrated and the not-so-famous.


The images, and the memories, are as sharp as ever.


Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt is 95 years old and has taken a million pictures in his 70-year career. Age must be served, so now he shoots only rarely--like his family portraits of the Clintons.

He is unsure where the once-grand art of photojournalism is going, but he is proud to have been part, some say the progenitor, of its glorious past, as one of the original photographers for Life magazine.

"We were at the top of the world," he said. "We educated people."

Eisenstaedt is still educating people, now with a traveling exhibition, "95 for 95," which is at the Circle Gallery in San Diego's historic Old Town district through May 1. He made a rare trip out of New York for the opening.

Ask him about his life's work, and he remembers the faces. Then again how could you forget those faces once they've been shot Eisenstaedt-style, crisp, up-close and intimate?

He counts among his subjects many of the great and the celebrated: George Bernard Shaw, Katharine Hepburn (during the filming of "Philadelphia Story"), a young Bette Davis, an even younger Clark Gable, President and Mrs. Kennedy, T. S. Eliot, Churchill, Hitler and Mussolini, Nixon and Haldemann, Bernstein conducting, Thomas Hart Benton painting, Truman walking, Catholic scholar Martin Cyril D'Arcy, Haile Selaisse and many more.

"Bertrand Russell had a fantastic face," Eisenstaedt said. "I told him, 'Mr. Russell, I've never seen such a stony face like you have.' He said to me, 'A crocodile moves very slowly.' "

Then there are pictures where the faces are less important than the emotions. On VJ Day, Eisenstaedt was sent to Times Square, where he captured the joy of an America suddenly liberated from war: A sailor bending a nurse over backward in a kiss of exultation.

Fifty years later, men still come up to Eisenstaedt and claim to have been the sailor in the picture (which is among those in the Circle Gallery exhibition).

"I must have had 50 men over the years tell me that is them in the picture," he said.

He has bad memories of only two subjects.

There was Britain's Prince Philip. Eisenstaedt accompanied him on a journey to the Arctic Circle for a Life cover. Eight days the little band pushed on and the royal one never deigned to talk to anyone beneath his station.

"He was bad to everybody anyway," Eisenstaedt said. "The German photographers said they flashed at him all the time without film in the camera, just to anger him. He never spoke to any of us."

There was also Hemingway. In a story that is now legend, Eisenstaedt was photographing Hemingway in a deep-sea fishing contest off Cuba soon after "The Old Man and the Sea" was published.

The photographer's chase boat came too close, and Hemingway, as he had threatened to do, fired some shots in its direction.

A scary incident but thoroughly in character for Hemingway, Eisenstaedt said. "When you talk to Hemingway, you have to think before you say anything. Anything you say is wrong. Everything is wrong. A very difficult man."

The bad times, though, are minuscule compared to the good ones. Like "clicking" with Sophia Loren, whom he photographed several times, including posing her in a sexy costume that caused a flurry of Life cancellations.

"Several years later a reporter asked her, 'Why do you click with Eisenstaedt?' " he said. "She told him, 'Because he reminds me very much of my obstetrician.' "

Sent to Hollywood in 1953 to photograph a story about a Southern California building boom, Eisenstaedt was redirected to shoot an aspiring sex goddess. He met Marilyn Monroe without the presence of press agents or image polishers.

"She was alone," Eisenstaedt said. "Today it would be impossible to do that. She wrote in my book, 'To Alfred, You made a palace out of my patio.' "

Despite his age, the photographer is not going quietly into the good night. When a gallery curator asks how he is feeling, Eisenstaedt responds that he is still alive.

"I'm 95 years old, but my brain always says I'm 30 years old, maybe 20," he said.

He has photographed in color (like his JFK portrait) but prefers black and white. Color is timely, but black and white is timeless.

"I love color but exhibitions, in my mind, look good only in black and white," he said. "Except for a few color portraits, nobody is interested. Color is good for fashion and flowers."

His rules for photographers are simple.

Arrive on time ("I'm always early. When I say I have to be there at 9, I'm there at 8:30"), be neither servile nor hostile to your subject.

And, yes, there is rule No. 1: Remember to have film in the camera.

He admits shooting blanks on occasion. He shot Einstein and Oppenheimer in spirited discussion at the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton and then realized his Leica was empty.

Luckily the two geniuses didn't notice his panic. "I sneaked out, they didn't even know," Eisenstaedt remembered.

He photographed (or so he thought) President Ford at a bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia but was sans film. When he tried to return to re-shoot, the Secret Service was instantly suspicious.

"They didn't want to let me back in," Eisenstaedt said. He persisted.

He always persisted and he always worked alone. It allowed him to be on time for 2,500 assignments for Life. "I work alone and without an assistant," he said. "Assistants are always late."

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