From the Lower East Side of New York City, Elisofon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1929 and Fordham University in 1933.
He is a founding member of the Photo League in 1936. He was one of the most active and productive members: he gave guest lectures (1938–43); co-organized the Men at Work project with Lewis Hine (1940); served periodically as president between 1939 and 1941; taught courses on photojournalism and flash photography (1940–41); and participated in numerous exhibitions. Elisofon’s childhood struggles inspired his mission as a photographer; whether photographing the neighborhood he grew up in, the poor communities in the South, or exploring other countries, the human condition remained central to his work. His humble upbringing drove Elisofon to succeed and to improve the world around him. From his perspective: “art, to be true art, must grow out of human beings and it must help human beings live a better and fuller life. It must extend the field of feeling and vision we are born with.”
From 1938 to 1942 he ran a commercial photography studio called August and Co.making photographs for advertising and fashion. Elisofon pursued his personal work on the side and studied the work of photographers he admired. Early in his career, Elisofon made it his mission to “point his camera at things that needed attention.” In 1937 he met the photographer and filmmaker Willard Van Dyke who introduced him to Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, who in turn introduced him to Beaumont Newhall, the curator of photography at MoMA and Tom Maloney, the editor of U.S. Camera. His New York street work was exhibited at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art and the Julien Levy Gallery. In 1938 his series Playgrounds of Manhattan was exhibited at the New School; for Elisofon the series was a way to bring attention to playground conditions for children in poor neighborhoods. Elisofon befriended and photographed many artists of the period, including Chaim Gross, Isamu Noguchi and David Smith, and his studio across from the Museum of Modern Art served as a gathering place for artists. He was hired as a photographer in the Federal Writers’ Project series These Are Our Lives in 1939.