EISENSTAEDT: GERMANY -- At the National Museum of American Art (Formerly the National Collection of Fine Arts) through January 4.
The concept of photojournalism was barely in focus in 1927 when Alfred Eisenstaedt discovered that he could make money taking pictures. The pioneer news photographer began his career making candids and portraits of rich and powerful Europeans for the Associated Press and a few magazines; on assignment, he traveled often to the resort regions where the wealthy played and to the capital cities where politics or war prevailed.
Dozens of the photographer's early works plus a selection of pictures he shot during two recent trips to Germany comprise a fine new show at the National Museum of American Art. "Eisenstaedt: Germany" is a study in contrasts and attitudes with 93 black-and-white photos perfectly juxtaposed so nobody misses the point.
There is heavyweight boxing champion Max Schmeling posing for a sculptor in 1931; and there he is in 1980, president of the Max Schmeling Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in Hamburg: "Fifty years ago, Schmeling was the German hero -- the Muhammad Ali of his time," Eisenstaedt writes in captions for the show. "See how fine he looks at 75."
Eisenstaedt left Nazi Germany in 1935 and soon got a job as one of Life's original photographers, a position he held for 40 years. Though he covered over 2,000 assignments around the world for the magazine, Eisenstaedt never returned to Germany.
"Nobody ever sent me there," he explains in the catalog to the show. But pressured by friends and colleagues to chronicle present-day Germany, the octogenarian again turned his lens on his homeland.
Like most of the vintage photos, his contemporary pictures reflect the multiple facets of German culture: Film director Rainier Werner Fassbinder posing with actress Hanna Schygulla; a Wagnerian tenor sitting astride his motorcycle outside the Stuttgart Opera; a young girl praying in a Jewish cemetery.
These recent works contrast with backward glances at the old culture: Filmmaker Josef von Dietrich in 1928; Thomas Mann waiting to receive the award for literature at the Nobel Prize ceremony in 1929; the Berlin Philharmonic playing a Beethoven symphony in 1932.
One of the most compelling photos is a 1933 shot of German Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels taken at the League of Nations Assembly in Geneva: "This picture," Eisenstaedt writes, "could be tilted 'From Goebbels With Love.' When I went up to him in the garden of the hotel, he looked at me with hateful eyes and waited for me to wither. But I didn't wither. If I have a camera in my hand, I don't know fear."