LIFE photographer Peter Solmssen writes.
On the the most satisfying aspects of this journal is that I get to exchange correspondence with some great photographers. Today’s column is guest authored by one of those – Peter Solmssen.
Peter Solmssen was a photographer with LIFE magazine during the golden era of photojournalism. Here is his story.
By Peter Solmssen
My photographic career probably began before I was born. My family has been fascinated by photography since it was invented; my great grandfather ordered the first family portrait (a Daguerreotype) in the early 1840′s.
He and his son, my grandfather, commissioned hundreds of photos in Germany during the 19th Century. My grandfather hired a wonderful (and now unknown) photographer, Joanna Eilert, to record every aspect of his life. Here, an image of his house, car and family – my mother is on the running board.
The first family members to actually take photographs were the women. My father’s mother made glass plate stereo images at the beginning of the 20th Century; I still have a few, and have had fun digitizing them so that we can view them on the HDTV (with colored 3D glasses). Here (necessarily seen in 2D) she has recorded her family taking off in a chartered Zeppelin. Her images remind me of the wonderful pictures by that talented child, Henri Lartigue.
Inspired by their mothers, my father’s generation were all avid photographers. My father was an early adopter of the Leica, his brother the Contax and his cousins the Rolleiflex, so I grew up in the presence of great machines.
I went off to college at 16. As the youngest editor on the Harvard Crimson, I thought that I should lend weight to my position by using a Speed Graphic, but I soon returned to the familiar Leica. It was very fortunate for me that my mentors on the Crimson were mostly returning veterans of World War II, and thus much older and wiser than I. With their help, I was able to expand my work by shooting for the rotogravure section of the Boston Globe and as staff photographer for Radcliffe College – all very heady stuff for a teen-aged undergraduate. I was also named campus correspondent for LIFE magazine, that Valhalla of photojournalists.
The first, and possibly most memorable, lesson I learned during my association with LIFE came during that early campus period. I was assisting LIFE photographer Burt Glinn in covering the re-enactment of a famous children’s book, “Make Way for the Ducklings”, in which a family of ducks cross a busy street and waddle into the Boston Common pond. Glinn had chartered one of the Boston Common swan boats to carry us out onto the pond with the ducks, but when we and the ducks had waddled to the edge of the pond, there was no boat in sight. Glinn, dressed in his typical LIFE photographer outfit of snap brim hat, Burberry trench coat and Brooks Brothers suit, marched right into the pond behind the ducks. When he came out, he handed me some soggy money and said: “Peter, go buy me some dry socks and never be afraid to get your feet wet”. The thought has stayed with me for over half a century. If you are a writer, you can stand back and observe your subject. If you are a photographer, you have to get right in where the action is. (Thomas has quoted Robert Capa to the same effect: “If your picture is no good, you weren’t close enough”).
After graduating from college, I was hired full-time as a photographer in the LIFE New York headquarters. There I was privileged to sit with the Gods during the golden age of photojournalism. I worked with and learned from the likes of Alfred Eisenstaedt, David Douglas Duncan, Andreas Feininger, Yale Joel and a long, distinguished list of others. Everyone passed through the home office at some point. Unfortunately, I never met Margaret Bourke White, but I did hear the darkroom guys moan and groan about her. Beautiful as she was, she could get whatever she wanted from the military, and that included a K-20 aerial camera that shot enormous 500 exposure rolls and became her favorite toy. She didn’t have to develop the rolls!
Thinking back over those days of long ago, the conversations I now recall were the lengthy debates over whether 35mm was “good enough” (just like the recent debates over digital) and the excitement over the Japanese lenses that David Duncan was lent in Korea when his Leica lenses were broken. The people at Nikon acknowledge that this was the breakthrough for quality Japanese photo gear. My most popular photo for LIFE was the picture of a diver, waiting to be called in an emergency, his helmet to the side and his eyes shaded inside the suit. It was titled (by LIFE) “No Neck On Deck”.
Strangely, as much as I admired the LIFE staff, the photographers who have inspired me the most over the years were not part of the regular staff. Over the long haul, the images that have stayed with me the most forcefully were by Arnold Newman, Yousuf Karsh and George Hurrell – the three great masters of the portrait. I had the pleasure of giving Arnold an honorary degree when I was a university president, and of becoming his friend. The charming Karsh and I met to discuss the possibility of an exhibition, which unfortunately did not take place before he died. I have kicked myself many a time for not looking up Hurrell, greatest of the Hollywood still photographers, because I stupidly thought that he must have died. In fact, he was re-discovered by Dinah Shore and had a second career into his nineties.
My own decision about a career in photography was much influenced by an assignment I worked on together with Alfred Eisenstaedt. We were an hour away from New York, and Eisey was saying that he was really anxious to get home to his family after a long time away, when the phone rang and he was told to get on a plane to Alaska. It really struck me that here was a guy at the absolute pinnacle of his profession who had no control over his own life. Much as I loved photography, I decided to find other ways to earn my living. This was undoubtedly the right decision, since I was not nearly as good at it as my famous colleagues, and photojournalism and photo magazines coincidentally went into a big slump at just about that time. As it turned out, the Navy during the Korean war and a quarter of a century as a diplomat provided other wonderful opportunities for photography and film. Some examples from Brazil:
Happily, the family tradition continues into the fifth generation; my daughter is a professional photographer in New York. Some of her work can be seen here.
Thank you, Peter, for that wonderful remembrance and for your fine photography.