Eisenstaedt was born in Dirschau (Tczew) in West Prussia, Imperial Germany in 1898. His family was Jewish and moved to Berlin in 1906. Eisenstaedt was fascinated by photography from his youth and began taking pictures at age 14 when he was given his first camera, an Eastman Kodak Folding Camera with roll film. He later served in the German Army’s artillery during World War I and was wounded in 1918. While working as a belt and button salesman in the 1920s in Weimar Germany, Eisenstaedt began taking photographs as a freelancer for the Pacific and Atlantic Photos’ Berlin office in 1928. The office was taken over by the Associated Press in 1931.
Eisenstaedt became a full-time photographer in 1929 when he was hired by the Associated Press office in Germany, and within a year he was described as a “photographer extraordinaire.” He also worked for Illustrierte Zeitung, published by Ullstein Verlag, then the world’s largest publishing house. Four years later he photographed the famous first meeting between Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Italy. Other notable early pictures by Eisenstaedt include his depiction of a waiter at the ice rink of the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz in 1932 and Joseph Goebbels at the League of Nations in Geneva in 1933. Although initially friendly, Goebbels scowled at Eisenstaedt when he took the photograph.
In 1935, Fascist Italy’s impending invasion of Ethiopia led to a burst of international interest in Ethiopia. While working for Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, Alfred took over 3,500 photographs in Ethiopia, before emigrating to the United States, where he joined Life magazine, but returned in the following year to Ethiopia to continue his photography.
Eisenstaedt’s family was Jewish. Oppression in Hitler’s Nazi Germany caused them to emigrate to the U.S. They arrived in 1935 and settled in New York, where he subsequently became a naturalized citizen, and joined fellow Associated Press émigrés Leon Daniel and Celia Kutschuk in their PIX Publishing photo agency founded that year. The following year, 1936, Time founder Henry Luce bought Life magazine, and Eisenstaedt, already noted for his photography in Europe, was asked to join the new magazine as one of its original staff of four photographers, including Margaret Bourke-White and Robert Capa. He remained a staff photographer from 1936 to 1972, achieving notability for his photojournalism of news events and celebrities.
Along with entertainers and celebrities, he photographed politicians, philosophers, artists, industrialists, and authors during his career with Life. By 1972 he had photographed nearly 2,500 stories and had more than 90 of his photos on the cover. With Life’s circulation of two million readers, Eisenstaedt’s reputation increased substantially. According to one historian, “his photographs have a power and a symbolic resonance that made him one of the best Life photographers.” In subsequent years, he also worked for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Town & Country and others.