The First Photojournalist

Alfred Eisenstaedt is often credited as the first “photojournalist” in the medium’s history. As one of LIFE magazine’s most renowned photojournalists, Eisenstaedt’s journey to becoming one of the most versatile and well-regarded photographers was an improbable one.

“Photographer Extraordinaire”

In the early 20th century, photojournalism was a nascent endeavor, as images became as important as the words evidenced by Henry Luce’s LIFE magazine. By the end of the 1940s, the most distinguished photojournalists belonged to the influential agency Magnum Photos which covered many historical events. Yet, Alfred Eisenstaedt stood out years prior as a “photographer extraordinaire” by capturing striking, unforgettable pictures. These included Hitler and Mussolini’s meeting at the League of Nations, a photographic report on Thomas Mann’s Noble Prize, and many portraits of famous personalities, including Marlene Dietrich, Katherine Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, and George Bernard Shaw.

Eisenstaedt at LIFE

Known for his skill and velocity with the small 35mm camera, unlike photographers of his time who used bulky cameras and flash equipment, Eisenstaedt pioneered the style of street photography and the use of natural lighting. Foreseeing the political chaos in Europe, he moved to New York, where he began to work for LIFE magazine. At LIFE, Eisenstaedt developed a legendary portfolio, taking over 2,500 pictures and over 90 cover photos creating some of the world’s most memorable images still in circulation today. His photographs became iconographic in their social, political, and historical content.

Beginning a Lifelong Journey into a World Behind the Lens

Alfred Eisenstaedt was born to a Jewish family in 1898 in what is today considered Poland, and early in his life, his family moved to Berlin. Eisenstaedt was given his first camera at 11, an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera, beginning a lifelong journey into a world behind the lens. At the First World War outbreak, the young Alfred was recruited into the German Army, where he was wounded in 1918. Following the war, he searched for any job he could find, working as a belt and button salesman in Weimar, Germany. During this time, Alfred started working as a freelance photographer for what eventually became the Associated Press. He made a name for himself within the Berlin journalistic scene, especially with his prescient shots of the rise of fascism.

“Although photo-based images appeared in newspapers and journals in the mid-nineteenth century and reportage was already a recognized practice, the word “photojournalist” does not seem to have been used until 1938 – in reference to German photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt, whose keen images of the rise of Nazism were as powerful as words. Eisenstaedt anticipated the appellation in 1929 when he listed himself as a “reporter news photographer.” – 100 Ideas that Changed Photography – Mary Warner Marien.

Alfred Eisenstaedt Little Boy Selling Coca-Cola at Roadside, Atlanta, Georgia
Alfred Eisenstaedt Little Boy Selling Coca-Cola at Roadside, Atlanta, Georgia, 1936, printed 1993, Silver gelatin photograph

Little Boy Selling Coca-Cola at Roadside, Atlanta, Georgia

In 1936, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photograph Little Boy Selling Coca-Cola at Roadside, Atlanta, Georgia, captured more than just a moment. It signaled the rise of American popular culture in history. The Coca-Cola Company, one of the most famous brands recognized worldwide, was born in the state of Georgia. Initially sold at the end of the 19th century as an over-the-counter dietary supplement, by the mid-1930s, the famous drink had become an American mainstay. Eisenstaedt’s picture portrays the ubiquitous effect Coca-Cola would soon have over the rest of the globe. Not only does the image serve as documentary photography, recording a moment in time, but also as resonant symbolism. The young boy selling Coca-Cola is analogous to the growing influence of American brands. As the boy grew, so did the company, which became a titan in international commerce and advertising.

Middle-Class America

Moreover, the picture gives us visual hints to the prominence of the suburbs in American culture. The well-dressed boy sitting on the lawn reading a book on the side of a tree-lined street, as opposed to the penury of the shoeshine boy often photographed in the inner-city, personifies the ascendancy of middle-class America. He is an embodiment of the “boy next door” getting an introduction to American capitalism. For Coca-Cola, with its massive array of beautifully produced items and hand-lettered advertisements, the company created an original aesthetic emblematic of American ingenuity, always capable of bringing the viewer back to a nostalgic era of homegrown, American-made success. Additionally, the picture’s unique time in history, taken during the Great Depression that ended in the late 1930s, can ultimately symbolize that, as we experience today, America can flourish even during hard times.

Documenting an Evolving World

Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photographs helped document an evolving world. From his “V-J Day in Times Square,” kiss photo inspiring public sculptures worldwide, to his Winston Churchill portrait that showed the iconic “V for Victory sign,” which helped make the sign famous and synonymous with peace. Eisenstadt, or Eisie, as his friends called him, remains one of history’s most captivating photographers. His pioneering work with a 35mm camera and natural light shows that enchanting pictures live in the abundance of everyday moments; you may only need the right eye and spirit to catch them.

“The strength of his photographs lies in the simplicity of their composition. Eisenstaedt’s portraits clearly reveal the spirit and the character of a person, regardless of whether that person is famous or unknown. The intimacy of his pictures makes the viewer feel like a participant, as if he was present, standing next to the photographer.” – Peter Pollack, Director of the American Federation of the Arts.