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Alfred Eisenstaedt: uncharacteristically dominant

An exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario showcases 72 of the photographer's black-and-white images.

The interplay of contrasting light and shadow that is the essence of black-and-white photography is particularly accentuated in photographs of snow – as in a memorable and rather strange landscape from the 1930s by Alfred Eisenstaedt, pictured here. It is in an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) from now through Feb. 4, 2007. On exhibit are 72 of this remarkable German-born photographer's images. Since the AGO has a collection of more than 800 Eisenstaedt photographs (itself a smattering of the thousands he took), this is a selective display.

Eisenstaedt is often called "the father of photojournalism." After escaping from Nazi Germany, he settled in the US and, already a successful photographer, joined Life magazine at its inception. Editors at the magazine were surprised that he did not take vast quantities of pictures on his assignments, offering a wealth of choices.

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He didn't need to. With economical finesse, he seems to have had a genius for capturing the most telling shot at exactly the right moment.

His numerous portraits of notables are ample evidence of this extraordinary knack. When photographing people, he employed great tact. He said he tried "not to push people around. I have to be as much a diplomat as a photographer. People often don't take me seriously because I carry so little equipment and make so little fuss.... My motto has always been, 'Keep it simple.' "

So the photographer was not willful. He was an observer with a mechanism designed to record his observations. His stance was that of an unobtrusive background presence. This is what makes "Eisenstaedt (Shadow) Photographing the Tower Hotels at Sestrieres, Italy" (c. 1933) so unusual. The "unobtrusive" presence became a dominant shadow-silhouette in the foreground.

It is quite clear what the source of this strong shadow is doing – the photographer observes himself as an integral part of this photograph. His elongated shadow also acts as a perspective across the snow-rutted ground. Beyond, there is a sudden disjunction in the landscape, like the edge of a precipice. And the towers of the hotels, like features of a surreal dream, are dramatically distant and small. One of these round towers casts its own long shadow in the low sunlight, echoing Eisenstaedt's shadow and forging a subtle link between near and far that might seem contrived, but presumably just happened to be like that.

This exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario also includes about 120 works by Ansel Adams.