LIFE on Both Sides of the Camera: Eisenstaedt’s Surprising Self-Portraits

Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Alfred Eisenstaedt—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
LIFE's Alfred Eisenstaedt (right) poses with Japanese cabinet minister Wataru Narahashi, the principal author of Japan's post-war constitution and a politician who reportedly modeled his career on that of Abraham Lincoln's, Tokyo, March 1946.
Alfred Eisenstaedt
1946
1970

The great Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photographic vision wasn’t limited to the intimate portraits he produced of some of the 20th century’s most famous faces, from Marilyn Monroe and Frank Lloyd Wright to Mia Farrow and J. Robert Oppenheimer. After researching seemingly endless negatives, contact sheets, and Eisenstaedt prints, LIFE.com photo editor Liz Ronk rediscovered that the long-time LIFE photographer very often crowned his assignments with one last shot: creating captivating self-portraits, posing — and frequently clowning — with his subjects.

The realization that “Eisie” (as he was known by those lucky enough to call him a colleague or a friend) often turned the lens on himself in this way is likely to astonish photography aficionados and casual fans alike. Throughout his six-decade career, Eisenstaedt made some of the most immediately recognizable and most frequently reproduced images of the 20th century; that he also clearly enjoyed “playing tourist” and posing with the rich, the famous and the powerful — as well as men and women whose names and occupations have been lost to history — somehow brings the masterful photojournalist that much closer. This legendary man, these self-portraits allow us to tell ourselves, is actually more like many of us than we ever thought possible.

Eisenstaedt also famously carried with him an autograph book that, by the end of his life, was filled with page after page of signatures from long-forgotten artists, fellow photographers, legendary athletes, powerful world leaders — in short, from anyone and everyone he happened to shoot.

The man’s habit of photographing himself with his subjects, and even asking for their autographs for his ever-growing collection, was not only well-known among by his colleagues at LIFE and elsewhere, but in at least one instance the seemingly whimsical tradition appears to have had a lasting influence on one of his younger peers. The celebrated sports photographer Neil Leifer recently told LIFE.com that early in his career, the notion of asking someone to pose for a picture after a shoot, or requesting an autograph of someone he had just finished shooting, struck him as vaguely unprofessional. It just was not something that a credible photojournalist did. Or so he thought.

“In the early 1980s I had an office next to Eisie’s in the Time-Life Building,” Leifer recalls, “and I saw that in his office he had framed photos of himself with JFK, Sophia Loren — all these pictures where he was posing with people he had photographed on assignments for LIFE, and I thought, If Alfred Eisenstaedt, of all people, takes self-portraits with his subjects, and asks them for autographs, how unprofessional can it really be?

Here, then, in tribute to the endearing penchant of one of the 20th century’s indispensable photographers — a penchant to add a quiet, personal, visual coda to so much of his life’s work — LIFE.com offers a selection of some of the most revealing and unexpected of Alfred Eisensteadt’s singularly charming self-portraits.

— Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com

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