Alfred Eisenstaedt: “Precision and Tenderness”

Alfred Eisenstaedt produced some of the most memorable photographs of the twentieth century. This photograph, taken in 1963, captures the faces of young children as they sit watching a puppet show of the story Saint George and the Dragon. Taken right at the moment when Saint George slays the mythical best, Eisenstaedt captures the thrill, shock, pleasure and horror of the children as they watch the story unfold. Eisenstaedt depicts all the innocence of youth in their reactions to the storytelling.

Eisenstaedt took several pictures of the children as they watched the show, originally finding it difficult to get the angle he liked. His favourite however, was always this photograph taken at the climax of the action. Eisenstaedt has said of the image, “it carries all the excitement of the children screaming ‘the dragon is slain!’ Very often this sort of thing is only a momentary vision. My brain does not register, only my eyes and finger react. Click.” What makes this image even more spectacular and curious is that we are not exposed to the source of the children’s shock and delight.

Fleeing his native Germany in 1935 with his family, due to the increasing Nazi threat to the Jewish community, Eisenstaedt emigrated to the United States. Having already established a name for himself as a photographer in Europe, working with the Associated Press and the Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Eisenstaedt was employed by Henry Luce as one of four staff photographers at LIFE magazine. Similar to the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eisenstaedt’s photojournalism is renowned for its precision and tenderness in capturing the scenes and peoples of quotidian life. Like Cartier-Bresson, Eisenstaedt used a 35mm Leica so he could easily navigate the spaces he photographed and capture moments quickly with his handheld camera. As with this photograph, taken in an outdoor theatre, Eisenstaedt worked with natural light only, preferring the realistic effects and humane sensibilities that the light could convey as opposed to using bulky flashbulb equipment.

Eisenstaedt’s photographs appeared on more than eighty covers of LIFE magazine. As well as capturing spontaneous moments such as this one of the children and celebrations of VJ day in New York’s Times Square, Eisenstaedt photographed famous personalities and remained an in uential photojournalist until his death aged 97 in 1995.

This large, impressive print was made in 1987 by Eisenstaedt as a precursor to a limited edition he was to release through LIFE magazine in 1989. The image was rediscovered amongst his archives at around this period for an exhibition at the LIFE gallery in New York in 1986. Before this exhibition it is likely that it was printed only a few times – first, for the original 1963 LIFE International article in which it appeared, and then possibly for an exhibition in the Time & Life building in 1966 when Eisenstaedt’s book, Witness To Our Time, was released.

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