Eliot Elisofon

Eliot Elisofon,“Marcel Duchamp Descending a Staircase”, 1952, Gelatin Silver Print, Image Size 33.5 x 26.8 cm, Mead Art Museum, Amherst College

Born in New York City in April of 1911 to immigrant parents, Eliot Elisofon, born Meyer Eliot Elicofon, was a photojournalist and a documentary photographer. His humble upbringing and childhood struggles inspired his career as a photographer; the human condition with all its struggles became the central focus of his work. 

Elisofon graduated from Fordham University in 1933 and first produced advertising photographs for Vogue and Mademoiselle magazines. By 1937, he was regularly contributing work to Life magazine on a variety of subjects, including theater, military exercises, coal miners, and elite society events. In 1936, Elisofon became a founding member of the Photo League, a cooperative of New York photographers who covered creative and social causes. One of its more active members, he gave lectures, collaborated with sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine on the “Men at Work” project, and taught courses on flash photography and photojournalism. 

In 1937, Eliot Elisofon became associated with filmmaker Willard Van Dyke, Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, Beaumont Newhall, the photography curator at the Museum of Modern Art, and Tom Maloney, the editior of U.S. Camera magazine. His first exhibition of his New York street photography was shown at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art and New York’s avant-garde Julien Levy Gallery, In 1938, Elisofon’s “Playgrounds of Manhattan” was shown at the New School, a progressive arts college in New York City. 

Elisofon was hired in 1939 as a photographer in the Federal Writers’ Project, a WPA New Deal Program, for its series “These Are Our Lives”, which contained thirty-seven life histories of both black and white farm laborers, factory and mill workers, and workers in service occupations or on relief. Beginning in 1942, Elisofon was a war correspondent and a photographer for Life magazine; he was the only photographer to accompany General Patton throughout the North African Campaign. These photographs taken during the campaign became part of the exhibition “The Tunisian Triumph”, which opened in June of 1943 at MOMA and later traveled to twenty cities. Elisofon continued to be associated with Life and other magazines until 1972. 

Over the years, Eliot Elisofon traveled to six continents and nineteen books of his work were published during his lifetime. During his photographic journeys around the African continent, Elisofon assembled a collection of African art and took over eighty thousand images; the art and photographs are now part of the collection of the National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. 

Eliot Elisofon’s photograph “Marcel Duchamp Descending a Staircase” was shot for a ten-page article written by Winthrop Sargeant on Marcel Duchamp, a key member of the Dada movement, for the April 28, 1952, issue of Life magazine. One of Duchamp’s most significant works was his early 1912 painting “Nude Descending a Staircase”, a cubist image in the manner of the chronophotography work of Eadweard Muybridge, who was a pioneer in the study of movement and measurement through multiple image photography. Elison’s 1952 time-lapse photograph of Duchamp descending a flight of stairs was done as a tribute to Duchamp’s famous painting; the image above is one of the two staged shots that Elisofon produced in the photo shoot.

Top Insert Image: Eliot Elisofon, “Self Portrait with Speed Graphic Camera, New York City”, 1936, Gelatin Silver Print

Bottom Insert Image: Marcel Duchamp, “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2)”, 1912, Oil on Canvas, 151.8 x 93.3 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art

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