Alfred Eisenstaedt, 96, the pioneering photojournalist whose pictures for Life magazine captured history's changing moods and telling moments in the lives of the obscure and the famous, died of a heart attack Aug. 24 at a hospital on Martha's Vineyard, where he was vacationing.

He took more than 1 million pictures, 86 of which appeared on the cover of the magazine that, for many subscribers in the era before television, was a weekly window on the rest of the world.

The most widely recognized Eisenstaedt cover photo, of a nurse in Times Square curved in the embrace of an exuberant sailor, came to symbolize the joy Americans felt celebrating the end of World War II.

When the 50th anniversary of Japan's surrender was marked this month, the Times Square picture was recalled as a defining moment in photojournalism.

The image, chosen by Time magazine four years ago as one of the 10 best news shots in the history of photography, will appear on a U.S. postal stamp being issued Sept. 2.

"When people don't know me anymore, they will remember that picture," Mr. Eisenstaedt once said.

During 65 years as a professional photographer, Mr. Eisenstaedt set a new tone for photography by taking unaffected, natural pictures of world leaders, movie stars, children and other images that caught his eye. Many now are sold as works of art.

Among his last photos were portraits of President Clinton and his wife and daughter. They were taken two years ago on Martha's Vineyard, an island whose beauty Mr. Eisenstaedt had documented in several books and where he had vacationed since the late 1930s.

Alfred Eisenstaedt, known by his colleagues as "Eisie," was a compact, restless man who said that with a camera in his hand, he knew no fear.

He was born in West Prussia, in an area that now is part of Poland, and moved as a child to Berlin, where his father owned a department store.

As an artillery cannoneer in World War I, Alfred Eisenstaedt nearly lost both legs to shrapnel when his battery was struck by a British shell at Dieppe, France. He was the only member of his battery to survive.

He walked using crutches for a year, attended university in Berlin, taught himself photography and haunted the city's museums. After his affluent Jewish family lost its money during the postwar inflationary period, he took a job as a salesman of belts and buttons.

He hated the job and, increasingly, experimented with photography. By 1925, he was making his own enlargements, and in 1927, he sold his first photograph, of a woman playing tennis.

His first professional assignment, also that year, was to photograph writer Thomas Mann accepting the Nobel Prize. He soon was freelancing full time.

Techniques in photography were changing, with posed, flashbulb pictures being superseded by more candid, realistic shots taken with available light.

Mr. Eisenstaedt began using a small Leica 35mm camera in place of the bulkier cameras then in wide use. It enabled him to seize moments and to take many shots without reloading, and it remained his most useful tool for decades.

"Some people are under the misapprehension that having the most expensive camera and dozens of gadgets is a sure path to good photography," he was to write in one of 13 books he later published. "It's the eye behind the camera that counts most."

Mr. Eisenstaedt worked in Berlin for the Pacific and Atlantic Picture Agency and, two years later, for the Associated Press.

He soon became well-known for such work as a series on street life in Les Halles market of Paris and the ballet school of the Grand Opera de Paris.

He illustrated the excitement over the appearance of a celebrity, skater Sonja Henie, not by taking her picture but by photographing a group of tuxedoed waiters crowding the windows of a hotel dining room to glimpse her.

Waiting until the official photographs had been been taken at the 1933 League of Nations assembly in Geneva, he captured the hate-filled expression of German dictator Adolf Hitler's minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, looking, as one journalist later wrote, "like a man descending into Hell."

When Mr. Eisenstaedt left Hitler's Germany in 1935 for the United States, he already was famous. Henry Luce hired him and three other photographers to work on what he called "Magazine X," the prototype of Life, which was to begin publication eight months later.

Luce said he knew the magazine would succeed after he saw how powerfully Mr. Eisenstaedt's photographs had captured the life of a southern sharecropper's family.

Margaret Bourke-White shot the first Life cover and Mr. Eisenstaedt the second, a portrait of a ramrod-straight West Point plebe being hazed by an upperclassman at the dinner table.

Other photographers at the magazine's birth included Peter Stackpole and Thomas McEvoy.

"His influence was very great on young photographers. There weren't many home-grown American photojournalists when Life began, and everyone turned to Eisenstaedt and a handful of others who came here from German picture magazines," said Howard Chapnick, former president of the Black Star picture group and author of "Truth Needs No Ally," a history of photojournalism.

Mr. Eisenstaedt gained increasing recognition for his portraits of familiar faces, including Winston Churchill and his wife, peering from cottage windows; John F. Kennedy, framed by a globe and hunched over the morning papers in the Oval Office; Jacqueline Kennedy, with her daughter, Caroline, in front of a bird cage; and several generations of Hollywood stars, including Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren.

His mid-1960s picture of Loren in a skimpy black gown prompted 2,500 letters of protest and 800 subscription cancellations.

But one of his most popular photographs, after the Times Square picture, was of children trooping after a drum major.

He captured other sentimental aspects of American life, including a trio of small boys reading the comics.

He preferred to shoot in black and white, saying it was the color of his dreams. He often snapped pictures instinctively, he said. "I don't think," he insisted. "If you think, it's too late."

The Times Square picture was snapped after he noticed a sailor in blues kissing and hugging every woman in sight. He followed the man and waited until he grabbed a young woman in a white uniform, a combination he knew was going to work as a composition.

"Eisenstaedt was not the great stylist or artist, but he was one of the classic photojournalists," Bill Kuykendall, director of the photojournalism department at the University of Missouri, told the Associated Press. "His were very direct, simple, powerful images. He just celebrated life,".

Mr. Eisenstaedt contended that he shot on instinct, but looking at his contact sheets "was a revelation," Cornell Capa, director of the International Center of Photography, said in a 1987 interview. "He knows what he is after. In three or four exposures, he makes perfectly framed pictures."

Mr. Eisenstaedt was "a master of timing and composition," Capa told National Public Radio yesterday.

Mr. Eisenstaedt's last cover for Life was in 1972, the year the magazine ceased weekly publication.

His work appeared in every leading photographic magazine in the world and was included in "The Family of Man" exhibition and his own traveling exhibitions.

He said in a 1993 interview that the "golden days for picture magazines and photojournalism" were long gone. "We were bringing the world to people. Now television has taken over most of the instant news function that we once filled, and photographers have had to adjust."

In recent years, arthritis forced Mr. Eisenstaedt to use a wheelchair, and he stopped taking pictures.

But he continued to commute the four blocks from his apartment in Manhattan to his office in the Time & Life Building, where he sorted and catalogued his photos and worked on his books.

Mr. Eisenstaedt's wife, Alma Kathy Kaye, died in 1972. They had no children.