What if the great Alfred Eisenstaedt had been born in a later era and had become a television cameraman instead of a photographer?
He might have had an exciting, productive career.
But he would not have turned out to be one of the most celebrated pictorial artists of his time, earning universal praise and being hailed in eulogy after eulogy after he died last Wednesday at age 96.
Americans would not be toasting anew his famous photograph of a sailor kissing a nurse in New York’s Times Square on V-J Day, a glorious back-bending smooch that epitomized the nation’s war-ending euphoria on Aug. 14, 1945. There would be no retrospectives of his work, including a high-strutting drum major trailed across a field by a line of imitative children, their elation and abandon conveyed by laughter and pliant body language. And The Times would not have published, as it did Monday in Calendar, his wonderful photograph of Parisian youngsters with joy and fascination on their faces while transfixed by a puppet show.
Eisenstaedt was “a small man with unobtrusive ways who used a small, unimpressive camera, and he did not intimidate those whom he photographed but caught their essence and their actions almost as though by accident,” his former Life colleague Carl Mydans wrote in The Times.
Had Eisenstaedt been a news cameraman, however, he would have been the attraction, and those French children, instead of being spontaneous, would have been reacting to his minicam instead of to the slaying of a dragon in the puppet show. That is, if Eisenstaedt would have been there to shoot them in the first place, given the likely agenda of his newscast employer.
His medium would have been television, whose visuals are infinite but rarely indelible, and whose few images that do linger almost always graphically capture the disparaging sadness of human behavior, not the sheer bliss of living.
Mentally replaying those TV pictures, you again see Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas in 1963, two days after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which was captured on film by amateur cameraman Abraham Zapruder. You see the Challenger exploding shortly after launch. You see Rodney G. King beaten like an animal by Los Angeles Police Department officers. You see dazed Reginald O. Denny pulled from his truck and brutally attacked at Florence and Normandie. You see a white Ford Bronco staying just ahead of pursuing squad cars while traveling Los Angeles freeways with a famous murder suspect. You see doomed skeletal children in Somalia. You see the rubble of a government building in Oklahoma City. You see the Balkans’ multitudes of dead, bloodied and homeless.
All are reflections of violence and misery that, beyond a doubt, were important for the public to witness. What you rarely recall from TV--because violence and misery are its preoccupation--are pictures that affirm the best of humanity. It’s the savagery of Denny’s attackers whose pictures are most vivid in our memories, for example, not the courage of those who rescued him.
Some famous still photographs also are overwhelmingly grim. Think of Robert Capa’s remarkable 1937 photo of a soldier falling in the Spanish civil war, his rifle slipping from his hand a millisecond after being fatally pierced by a bullet. And Bill Reed’s shot of tobacco-chewing Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and his deputy, Cecil Price, grinning defiantly in court with their redneck cronies while being arraigned in 1964 for the murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers. And John P. Filo’s 1970 photo of 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio screaming in anguished horror beside the body of a student slain in a clash between the Ohio National Guard and anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at Kent State University.
Some of these defining images are in a 1973 book of Life magazine photos that I happened across after the death of Eisenstaedt, who was a Life contributor for many years. Containing samplings of his work and that of dozens of other photographers, it includes sections on soldiers at war, ugly episodes of the African American struggle for integration and other images of conflict.
But the great bulk of photos in the book show Americans and others merely getting on with the routine of life: a boy sitting stiff-backed at his piano recital, artist Georgia O’Keeffe doing some deep pondering in New Mexico, an ecstatic, half-immersed woman being baptized in Los Angeles, a Japanese mother tenderly bathing her 17-year-old daughter who was born blind and physically disabled as a result of mercury poisoning. And on and on, page after page, they go.
On and on they don’t go on the most visual of media, television. Or at least you don’t recall them.
Of course, it’s human nature to remember the great disasters. Another problem for TV, notes a news cameraman for a Los Angeles station, is the fleeting quality of its pictures in contrast to still photos--the exceptions being repetitive reruns (the King, Denny and O.J. Simpson freeway footage being vivid examples) that inevitably accompany every mention of some stories, intensifying the viewer’s visceral response.
“You could pull off a good frame from some video that I shot and it would be a memorable picture,” said the cameraman, who asked that his name not be mentioned, “but the problem is that the video goes by so fast. Look at the Challenger explosion. It blows up, and before you know it the pieces are in the ocean.”
Sometimes it takes a still photo to memorialize a worthy TV picture. On a wall in our kitchen, for example, is a 1989 photo--from TV--of a single Chinese dissenter opposing a tank in Tian An Men Square, a constant reminder of a singular moment of bravery that was all too brief on the small screen.
The TV cameraman mentioned dramatic still and TV photos of a fireman cradling a dying infant pulled from the debris of the Oklahoma City bombing that yielded myriad pictures. “You can see the firefighter’s face, the emotion. But the video of the exact same thing doesn’t give you time to really look at the expression on his face.”
That’s because television news, impulsively zooming in the fast lane while swept up in the frenzy of the immediate, rarely pauses to let the viewer reflect.
The local news cameraman believes that TV news, by showing pictures in sequences supported by sound, has the potential to provide a context that’s beyond still photography. But it rarely takes the time to do so.
I’m reminded of Dorothea Lange’s bleak, influential photographs of migrant farm workers and their families in California during the Great Depression, especially her most renowned one of a mother holding her two children. That woman’s troubled, yet resolute expression is its own context. Hanging in the Library of Congress, “Migrant Mother” is a portrait of a generation’s terrible economic plight, and its will to resist adversity and survive.
Would TV linger on such a picture if it got aired? Or would it be reduced to a flash card preceding weather and sports?