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“To Help The World To See”

An Eliot Elisofon Retrospective

Roy Flukinger

Eliot Elisofon standing next to his Jeep.

Self-portrait with his jeep, “Mavis.” North Africa, 1943.

A LIFE editor, Ray Mackland, in reviewing the work of the young Eliot Elisofon, began to grow tired of Eliot's ceaseless assertiveness and self-promotion. Finally he had enough and complained to Elisofon, "I just don't understand how you can keep introducing yourself as ‘the greatest LIFE photographer'." Eliot considered the matter for a moment and then replied, "You're right. You should be doing it for me."

In his early days with LIFE, Eliot Elisofon had no problem being "the world's greatest photographer," or any variation thereof, if he felt that it would help him get the pictures he wanted. Continually energetic and creative, he would use any legitimate means–a combination of imagination, pragmatism, inventiveness, perseverance, integrity, thoughtfulness, taste, and sheer will–to come back with the photographs he needed. And, in doing so, he created and defined the characteristics of the world-class photojournalist of mid-twentieth century America.

The concept of "greatness" came back in a very different way in an interview Elisofon gave in 1973 shortly before his death. The perspective of reviewing his days seemed to have mellowed him: "Photography is too personal a medium with which to achieve greatness easily. . . . I'm too diverse a man to be a great photographer. I have discipline, motivation. I'm a good photographer. But I'm a writer, painter, editor, filmmaker, too. I'm a complex human who needs to satisfy human needs. You can't be great without giving everything you've got to a single art. I haven't done that . . . I'm also a talker."

Another time, Elisofon simply stated, "photography has enriched my life." One need hardly add that his photographs continue to frame and enrich the lives of us all. Indeed, the fact that his photographs continue to have the capacity to touch our lives may be the single most outstanding quality that makes Eliot Elisofon endure as one of the world's "greatest" photographers.

* * * * *

First, get the name right. "Eliot" with one "l" and one "t." And "Elisofon" carries the accent on the first syllable and has all short and soft vowels. People misspelled it throughout his life. Some historians and many students still want to confuse him with Elliot Erwitt, the Magnum photographer, or with his old friend and fellow LIFE photographer, Alfred Eisenstadt.

The name itself is an Americanization of the old Latvian Jewish family name, Elicofon. Eliot was born in 1911 and raised in New York City with the original surname–the first generation of his family born in America. He grew up in poverty on the rough part of the Lower East Side. But it was a close family and, in addition, his mother, Sarah, made certain that her children experienced the rich urban culture, exposing them at an early age to music, art and literature. With Eliot it clearly took– so much so that he resolved sometime in his youth to escape his poor environment and eventually see and experience the world.

He worked to help support the family and to make enough money to attend Fordham University. He also began working as a clerk in the Medical Department of the state's Bureau of Workman's Compensation with one eye on a possible medical career. By 1933, he had completed his four-year program and successfully graduated from Fordham, but the struggle for money at the height of the Depression kept him, for the time being, in his clerical position.

In the meantime, photography was becoming an important part of his world. As early as high school, Eliot had been using the Brownie camera of his sister, Belle, and developing his negatives in the family bathroom. Photography continued as a hobby and grew as a passion for Elisofon. So much so that when a high school buddy, Marty Bauman, tempted him with a founding partnership in a commercial photographic studio (August & Co.) in 1935, Eliot quit his clerical job, shocked his family, and with what would become his characteristic enthusiasm and assertiveness, dove into his new profession.

The last half of the 1930s would prove to be the turning point in the young photographer's life. Not only did he continue to learn his craft, but he pushed at its limits. He studied the history and evolution of photography as well as the contemporary movements and shapers of modern art, and brought it all to bear upon his own photography. In the process, Elisofon's work evolved from early amateur and naive pictorial themes into innovative and at times mature expressions of the medium. He helped turn August & Co. into a successful commercial enterprise, with expanding workspaces and better paying projects and customers. His imagery became seen, known, and well-received by many significant people, including gallery owners Julien Levy and Marion Willard; fellow young photographers Willard Van Dyke and Harold Rosenblum; editors Tom Maloney (U.S. Camera) and Alex King (LIFE); Alexey Brodovitch, the legendary Art Director of Harper's Bazaar; and even Beaumont Newhall, the Curator of Photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, who hired Eliot as the Museum's first staff photographer.

As the 1930s progressed, Eliot's social consciousness did too. It was born equally from his impoverished background as well as from the difficult economic times, and married to a growing fascination with photojournalism and his conviction that words and pictures could make a real difference in the world. Eliot was a man of action and he got up and did something about it; as he would later say, "I wanted to point my camera at things that needed attention." His local campaign for improving the "Playgrounds for Manhattan" was only a beginning and he quickly moved beyond his hometown. By 1937, he was in rural Tennessee and North Carolina, retracing and documenting the poverty exposed in the W.P.A. Federal Writer's Project book, These Are Our Lives. It was followed by such photo-stories as the Cleveland Relief Crisis in Ohio, potato farming in New Jersey, soft coal mining in Pennsylvania, and African American education in Georgia. In all instances Eliot brought his images back to New York City, presenting public lectures and exhibitions, and appearing in a majority of the major publications of the time--LIFE, Friday, U.S. Camera, Minicam, and Modern Photography.

And then there was the Photo League. A gathering in New York City of some of the most innovative photographers and thinkers of the time, the League was practically the only organization of the day involved in the serious study of photography and its influence. By the time Eliot joined the League in 1936, the group had become an important force, fostering not only an important forum for the understanding of the art and technique of photography but a belief that photography could impact social change as well. It was an ideal match at the time for the young Elisofon, and he threw himself into lecturing, exhibiting, discussions and image making with such fervor that by 1940 he became president of the organization. Although his active association with the League would end, like so many others, with America's entry into World War II, it proved a springboard for both his creative and intellectual growth as well as an entree into teaching positions with the New School for Social Research and the American Artists School.

By 1940, Eliot Elisofon had transformed himself from a struggling commercial photographer into an energetic and committed photojournalist, artist, activist, teacher, lecturer and writer. He was rapidly developing a taste for life's finer things and he had even taken the unusual step of hiring a press agent and clipping service. As he would realize by the end of that decade, "I am going at a tremendous pace."

Oswald Morris, Eliot Elisofon, and John Huston examining transparency tests.

Cinematographer Oswald Morris, Elisofon,
and director John Huston examining color
transparency tests on the set of Moulin Rouge.
Freddie Francis. Paris. 1952.

Nonetheless, the single most important factor to come from Eliot's early, formative years would be his association with LIFE magazine. The brainchild of American publisher Henry Luce, LIFE became the world's foremost picture magazine, utilizing the medium of photography not just to illustrate the story but to tell it as well. From its first issue in November 1936, LIFE featured the world and told its stories in a fresh, immediate fashion, finding new depth in the blending of word and photograph. In our modern, media-saturated age we perhaps need to occasionally pause to remind ourselves just how revolutionary Luce's periodical was. LIFE shaped photography in new ways. It created a full-time staff of professionals, provided them with the funds and equipment necessary for gathering images, and gave them the time and resources to do a complete job, acknowledging both the artistic perspective and the journalistic power of the camera image.

The timing was certainly perfect for the young Elisofon. The commitment of Luce and his staff to provide images that would inform and influence their audience must have been music to his ears. Before he began submitting his work, Eliot locked himself away with the early issues of LIFE and studied them–their photography, their use of words and pictures, their editorial approach, and their layout and design. It became inevitable that the brash and energetic photographer would have his work first appear (in two assignments in a single issue) within a year of the magazine's birth. Eliot was constantly taking assignments and proposing stories to King and other LIFE editors throughout the 1930s. And it would pay off. By 1940, he had his first LIFE cover photo. And in 1942, he achieved the goal of nearly all the photojournalists of his day–a full-time appointment as a staff photographer.

From that point on to the end of his days, the lives of Eliot Elisofon and LIFE magazine became enmeshed. In many ways he came to embody the prototypical LIFE photographer–energetic, creative, brash, unstoppable, globetrotting, always in motion, outspoken, sometimes egotistical, but at all times thoroughly professional. If he sometimes fell into the romanticized mold of what the public imagined a LIFE photographer to be, then it was justifiable because he always met the deadline, got the facts straight, and came back with memorable photographs which met both his editor's needs and his own critical standards.

Above all, LIFE provided the foundation from which Eliot could grow with his photography. The magazine provided deadlines and critical standards, but it also provided the challenges that someone of his temperament and personal qualities needed. No matter how the times and the art and craft of photography would change over the next thirty years, Eliot was one of the few prepared to adapt and grow with them. Even when he became one of their senior photographers and left LIFE's full-time employ in 1964 to work on special projects and freelance work, the influence of each upon the other continued. He later commented that "I self-inflicted most of my assignments….A LIFE photographer was a one-man band…[who] can go anywhere, can express himself in the work." It was a definition that he himself had helped to shape.

While doing a story in 1941, on the U.S. Army's Second Armored Division at Fort Benning, Elisofon crossed paths with Major General George S. Patton, Jr. Each would gain something from the experience. Eliot's portrait of the commander became LIFE's first full color cover. And Patton, frustrated by trying to pronounce Eliot's last name, dubbed him "Hellzapoppin'."

It would prove an appropriate nickname for, with World War II becoming a reality in the next year, Eliot headed into the U.S. Army Photography Corps. Assigned to the North African Theater, he was with the first landings at Casablanca, all throughout the Tunisian Campaign, and the last war correspondent to leave Cape Bon in May 1943. He survived (and photographed) an airplane crash and was always on the move to find the front line and the next story.

North Africa forged the young photojournalist into a war photographer. It took all his energy and instincts to survive battle and still bring home the photographs. As Eliot wrote, "You shoot and then think afterwards." No less an individual than Ernie Pyle, America's leading war correspondent, would witness the photographer under fire and later write, "Elisofon was afraid like the rest of us, yet he made himself go right into the teeth of danger. I've never known a more intense and more enthusiastic worker." Eliot would even fall into Patton's gunsight again when he flaunted the commander's order that all troops be clean-shaven and proceeded to grow a goatee. When the general called him in and demanded its removal Eliot said that he would do so only after Patton drove Rommel out of Africa. The beard stayed until the U.S. Army was victorious.

Perhaps Elisofon's fact that Bourke-White often used her looks and gender to gain selective coverage from the military brass, while he and the corps of male photographers were excluded or made to wait. Later, he became enraged when he learned that she had allowed her ethics to lapse and staged some battle scenes after they had happened. He complained loudly and often to the LIFE home office and, in one cable, bemoaned the fact in song: "Oh, I've got those Bourke-White Blues….Boogie-Woogie…." (Still, it was a rivalry that did not last. When Bourke-White was dying of Parkinson's disease in 1969, Elisofon lectured about her work and career and accepted an award on her behalf from Ohio University.)

In 1944, Elisofon was in Scandinavia covering Finland's peace with Russia, where he survived strafings by German fighters while at the front, and, later, a near fatal car accident in Sweden. After recuperating from his brain contusion, Eliot was sent to the Pacific Fleet where he remained to cover the conclusion of the war. By World War II's end, he had worked in three different continental theaters of war and, along with his fellow LIFE photographers, had gotten the pictures and stories back to the American home-front while also contributing to a large and unique record of that global conflict.

With the peacetime world opening up before him, Eliot was back at LIFE as a full-time photographer. He established a reputation as a photojournalist who would go anywhere for the story and his life took on a rhythm that rapidly became a velocity. He would head off for parts of the planet, come back with the pictures and the story, unwind at his New York City apartment or at his favored home on the island of Vinalhaven off the coast of Maine, engage in a number of his many passions such as painting or cooking, and then be off yet again. For the remainder of the 1940s and throughout the 1950s, he created and set the standard for memorable LIFE photo essays over a wide range of topics, including: the U.S. Atlantic Coast; the Hawaiian Islands; the U.S. Pacific Trust Territories; Africa and the Nile River; India; the cocaine trade in Peru and Bolivia; the King Ranch in Texas; the restaurants and foods of Europe; and the rise of post-war Japan. Most stories meant weeks or months away from home and, while they may have contributed to the eventual collapse of his two marriages, they also provided him with the opportunities to challenge his artistry and create some of the most notable images of this era.

Within the realm of the picture magazine, LIFE and Eliot would conduct a further revolution: the rise of color. As printing inks and the support technologies brought more color into American magazines, so the demand increased for professional photographers who could understand and work with color. Color was a language of light and art, and like any language it required its practitioner to have both experience and knowledge, as well as an assuredness and personal maturity which allowed for the full immersion within this new vision. Elisofon, long practiced in the world of color, was prepared. He understood how color technologies could go beyond the contrast and abstractions of black and white and add the real world elements of hue, intensity and saturation. It was Eliot who would take the lead in color photojournalism and, while he was certainly not the first photographer to use color, he was easily the first to take it beyond mere representation and factual reportage. As he would put it: "I've never believed color in pictures ought to be a facsimile of the real thing. Good artists take what they like from reality and discard the rest."

Eliot Elisofon painting a picture while sitting near a Tahitian hut.

Self-portrait, painting in Tahiti. 1954.

Beyond his technological brilliance lay another factor: Elisofon knew color because he was a painter. Having mastered the easel and palette for many years, Eliot was no stranger to the visual and emotive power of colors. Time and again he would apply the lessons and expertise he learned from his painting and, in the process, begin to rewrite the rulebook for color photography. Eliot knew how to bend and, at times, break the restrictions that bound conventional photographers, and through a variety of techniques–including filters, gels, controlled light, artificial lighting, flash, exposure, and the utilization of a variety of films–he accepted and surpassed each challenge. It was a complex dimension and Eliot understood it better than most: "For me color film is neither reality nor romanticism. It is far from ideal….Color in still photography and the motion pictures has simply been accepted because it was there, without control. I can't understand why….Color, just as any visual aspect of photography, must be consonant with the subject. This is of key import."

He recognized how the true art of color lay in its ability to be controlled and manipulated; how color was, beyond mere representation, capable of whole nuances of emotion, expression, interpretation, intensity, richness and meaning–in short, all the colors of the human heart. The world he and LIFE presented to their readers was not just the world they beheld but also the world they lived in.

One of Elisofon's greatest passions was food, and it is not surprising to learn that he is the only photographer to have authored a cookbook, titled Food Is A Four Letter Word. He took the basic love of food preparation taught him by his mother, gathered encouragement from his good friend, Gypsy Rose Lee (who wrote the book's introduction), learned more by doing and observing, and evolved into one of the best cooks and epicures of his time. Like his passion for painting, cooking offered him another artistic outlet for his creativity and self-expression. In addition, it was a universal common denominator that provided him with the human companionship and discourse he sought throughout the levels of society in which he traveled.

Ultimately, it was also reflective of his ceaseless fascination with peoples and cultures from around the world. Indeed, he became LIFE's major food photographer and first established what would become the "field photography" standard of depicting delicacies and whole meals in the actual geographical locations, both indoors and out, from which they originated or were prepared. In the end, he would even carry this artistry into producing several of the breathtaking arrangements which would illustrate several of the early books in the Time-Life "Foods of the World" series. As he remarked with gusto in the introduction to his cookbook: "There are many things that go with food, especially life itself."

If there was anything that tempted Elisofon away from the world of photography, it was the medium's most natural extension–moving pictures. At first this grew out of a number of assignments for LIFE to photograph contemporary movie actresses and "out-glamour" the more traditional portrait styles of a number of glamour photographers of the day, such as George Hurrell and Clarence Sinclair Bull. The series he designed and executed were innovative, popular and led to other assignments in America's movie capitol or on film sets around the world. Finally, John Huston was impressed enough with Eliot's color artistry to hire him in 1952 as the Special Color Consultant for his motion picture, Moulin Rouge. The film, besides being a hit, was highly praised for Elisofon's work, which (derived from his revolutionary still color photography) proved to be uniquely expressionistic for its day. As one critic summarized it, "It took a still photographer to see what cinematographers had missed for years."

Hollywood and Elisofon would continue to hold a mutual fascination for one another for a number of years. He served in his color capacities on a number of other movies, most notably Bell, Book and Candle (1958) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965). He eventually increased his profile to the point where he was selected to direct the documentary-style prologue to Khartoum in 1966. Although his dream of directing a full-length feature film would elude him, the documentary experience led him into new directions, and he would spend a large portion of his remaining years engaged in a number of film and video productions, whether as cinematographer, director or producer. In the end, he would produce a number of award-winning documentaries on his favorite continent, Africa, for both television broadcast and educational distribution. Although photojournalism remained at the core of his being, Elisofon took great pride in the fact that somewhere between twenty-five and fifty million people had seen his African films.

Indeed, it would be Africa that would be the focus of some of his greatest and longest-lasting passions. His fascination with the continent began with James Johnson Sweeney's famous exhibition on African tribal art held at the Museum of Modern Art in 1935. It remained a far corner of the globe that fascinated him from the time of his first visit there (not counting World War II) for LIFE in 1947. With his first traverse of the continent, "from Capetown to Cairo" as he would later call it, he created one of his most famous photo-essays for LIFE, titled "The Nile." He also began to collect thousands of pieces of native African art and, in the process of becoming one of the century's major experts and collectors, began lecturing, publishing, and advocating the significance of the arts and cultures that flourished there.

For generations foreign photographers had misrepresented Africa as a mysterious or uncivilized continent full of exotic animals, backward peoples and strange landscapes.The limitations and/or prejudices of many "objective" documentaryphotographers and writers had discolored the entire portrait of a vibrant land and its myriad cultures. Elisofon's social consciousness and inherent humanness would not tolerate it. He held that "Africa is the fulcrum of world power" and he sought to have America "wake up to that fact." Eliot became the first Western photographer to recognize the incredible richness and diversity of the nations of Africa–establishing a tradition since followed by such photographers as Constance Stuart Larrabee and Peter Beard–and fought to show what he saw to the world.

Eliot Elisofon in wooded terrain, kneeling beside a camera tripod.

Elisofon photographing in Indonesia.
Lee M. Talbot. 1967.

In Africa he found a culture that was rising to world prominence, while still possessing the romantic conventions and personal strength which would always appeal to his adventurous heart. Over his lifetime, Eliot undertook nine exhaustive African expeditions, the continent becoming a place that forced him constantly to push his limits and to grow throughout his many photojournalistic and motion picture projects. He also found an artistry that redefined nature and humanity in a new and complex fashion. So proud was he of his photography and the art he had collected that, at the end of his life, he donated his entire African art collection and African photographic archives to the Smithsonian Institution. In time, these would become the cornerstones for the National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C.

In the end, it would be the passage of years and the rise of newer media, which led to the demise of LIFE magazine. Even though Elisofon left the full-time staff of the picture weekly in 1964, he maintained an office and close contacts with the magazine until its end. Indeed, the senior photographer's name and pictures continued to appear there until the final curtain was rung down. LIFE brought out its final weekly issue at the end of 1972. Was it a coincidence that less than four months later, on April 7, 1973, at the age of sixty-one, a cerebral hemorrhage would end the life of one of its foremost photographers?

Toward the end of his days, Elisofon once calculated that he had logged more than two million miles traveling the world in pursuit of photographs. While his passion for photography never ceased, he often lamented the fact that photographers had no better way to reduce the process to its very essence–pure seeing. And yet, time and again, he would rise to the challenge and accomplish what he once characterized as "photography's greatest challenge….to help the world to see."

Eliot died far too young and, although the years had certainly taken a toll, one cannot help but be impressed with how he kept all the threads of his passionate life intertwined and active until the end. The youthful exuberance with which he once called himself "the world's greatest photographer" probably never left him, but he had not billed himself as such for many decades. His career covered many professions–photographer, writer, adventurer, painter, art collector, curator, explorer, filmmaker–and the results far exceeded any need for self-promotion. Indeed, as his archive and legacy so fittingly demonstrate, there is no need to prove what has been there all along.

To me, photography has been a challenge; to produce images that are meaningful but not dogmatic, to be artistic but not arty. It has served me as a vehicle to pay tribute to other arts: to photograph the sculpture of Africa and the temples of Egypt and India. It has also permitted me to experiment with color, a method developed principally in my own time, and to participate in its liberation from crass quasi-reality. Finally, photography has enriched my life. It has enabled me to travel … to almost every corner of the globe, using my camera as a magic carpet to see and study the meaning and beauty of civilizations and environments besides my own.

Eliot Elisofon
Popular Photography, 1962

I am having some Brie and crackers and a scotch and water. I know how to get Brie exactly right - finally. You have to carry it on a TWA plane, get the Stewardess to place it in a bag of ice cubes, then in Tel-Aviv leave it in your room overnight, then keep it for two days in the ice-box of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem - it's too hard anyway. From Tel-Aviv to Bombay keep it under your seat - well wrapped in plastic - One night in the Taj Mahal Hotel room and a short plane ride in Keshod - and it is just right, not too runny but it would be if left in the single small refrigerator they have in the Guest House.

Eliot Elisofon
January 10, 1973

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