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San Diego Museum of Art exhibit shows the U.S. through the lens of photographer Alfred Eisentstaedt

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Alfred Eisenstaedt, “Contraption Built on Farm to Carry Youngsters Down Rows of Corn so They Can Pull Off Corn Tassels. Waterloo, NE.” 1948. Gelatin silver print.
(The San Diego Museum of Art, Gift of Ken and Jacki Widder)

Eisenstaedt, who died in 1995 at age 96 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, was one of the four original photojournalists hired by Life when it was founded in 1936, and he worked for the magazine until it ceased regular publication in 1972. During that time, he produced more than 2,500 photo essays and 92 cover photos for the image-driven magazine.

Photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt is best known for the iconic kiss image on V-J Day in New York’s Times Square, perhaps the most famous photo of the 20th century and the inspiration for the “Unconditional Surrender” statue at the Embarcadero. The photographer worked for Life magazine and spent decades traveling the country to bring slices of life to the American reader each week.

The popular 20th-century publication catered to middle-class America, and Eisenstaedt’s images reflected their interests and values. He photographed everything from the mundane to the monumental, from high-school dances and celebrity portraits to collective moments in history captured with a single shot.

Eisenstaedt, who died in 1995 at age 96 in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, was one of the four original photojournalists hired by Life when it was founded in 1936, and he worked for the magazine until it ceased regular publication in 1972. During that time, he produced more than 2,500 photo essays and 92 cover photos for the image-driven magazine.

Fifty-three of his photographs, currently on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art, offer a glimpse of America from the 1930s to the 1950s. This period is known at the Golden Age of Photojournalism, when photo-rich periodicals influenced styles and trends before televisions became household items.

“His talent really was in taking mundane scenes and making them interesting,” said Cory Woodall, the museum’s assistant curator who selected the exhibition’s photographs from more than 350 Eisenstaedt images in the museum’s photography collection.

The images, most published by Life, are arranged by theme, starting with industrial shots and workers and moving on to neighborhoods, celebrities, World War II, fashion and leisure. He was always looking for an interesting angle, such as the overhead shots of a man at a copying machine printing music and a jeweler setting stones in his store.

For his fashion shots, Eisenstaedt went for the close ups, focusing in on a sleeve or the back of a lacy dress, emphasizing light and shadow.

The neighborhood shots are slices of suburban life that even take on a Norman Rockwell-like quality, such as the motorcycle policeman instructing two small children to stay out of the street in a 1942 picture from Garden City, New York.

“He was always looking for something wholesome and optimistic,” Woodall said. “He presented these images of a lovely home life.” A 1939 photo of a young girl and boy in immaculate outfits sewn from cotton bags is as close to the Great Depression as Eisenstadt ventured, she said.

A series of photos from 1948 Los Alamos show children playing and a woman with a baby in her Southwestern-style living room. The domestic scenes were taken to contrast the New Mexican town’s image as the site of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. (The atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki three years prior to the photos.)

A big part of Eisenstaedt’s success was his ability to be unobtrusive. He used a Leica III, a small camera with 35-millimeter film, technology developed in the 1920s that gave rise to candid photos and a surge in the demand for feature photography. He also preferred natural lighting, avoiding the bulk and the visibility of a flash.

“He was very friendly and got along with everyone,” Woodall said.

That ability to connect with people put his subjects at ease, allowing Eisenstaedt to capture not only a scene but also personality and emotion. His ease with the camera and eye for composition produced images of joy as well as anguish, with goodbyes at New York’s Penn Station during World War II.

Celebrity photos include a picture of Gregory Peck at La Jolla Cove taken in 1949 between rehearsals at the La Jolla Playhouse, which he helped establish, and Bette Davis in her Beverly Hills backyard, being wheeled in a sun chair by her chauffeur in 1939.

Eisenstaedt came to the United States in 1935 to escape Nazi Germany. He was born in Dirschau, West Prussia, (now Tczew, Poland) in 1898 and started taking photos when he got a camera as a teenager. After he sold his first image in 1927, he started focusing on photography as a career, giving up his job as a button and belt salesman. By the time he came to America, he was already an established photographer.

“When he was younger, he fancied himself as a pictorialist with highly composed scenes with soft focus,” Woodall said. “He became known as a wholesome photographer.”

“When we look at these photographs from a long time ago, we think they are so different, with different clothes and different styles,” she said. “But when we look at the human interactions and emotions, we see we haven’t changed at all.”

“Alfred Eisenstaedt: Life and Legacy”

When: Through July 14

Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park

Tickets: $8-$15

Phone: (619) 232-7931

Online: sdmart.org

Schimitschek is a freelance writer.