The Picture Show
3:24 am
Mon February 10, 2014

'Life' Photographer Showed Africa Through A New Lens

Originally published on Mon February 10, 2014 12:05 pm

Before World War II, many Americans got exaggerated ideas about Africa from movies like Tarzan the Ape Man — movies that were filmed on Hollywood sound stages.

It took time to change that view. But after the war, Life magazine photographer Eliot Elisofon sought to shed a new light on the vast and variegated continent.

An exhibit of Elisofon's work is currently on display at the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. Elisofon — who helped found the museum — gave it an archive of 60,000 of his prints and negatives. He died in 1973.

"He redefined Africa in a new and a complex way for American audiences," says curator Amy Staples. "And he brought Africa into their living rooms, in Life magazine."

In the late 1940s, Elisofon converted an old ambulance into a studio and drove it from Capetown to Cairo.

"He came in early," Staples says. "He was probably one of the first photographers to travel extensively in Africa after World War II." But his interest in the region began before that trip. In 1942, Elisofon was a combat photographer traveling with Gen. George Patton, the commander of the Western Task Force.

"He photographed the first action pictures of World War II from Tunisia," Staples says. "That was an important trip for him. He actually became interested in Africa because of the '42 trip. And then he went back to Africa for Life to cover the visit of King George VI."

Traveling with the British king in 1947, Elisofon encountered a king of the Congo: Mbopey Mabiintsh ma‐Kyeen. When asked to take his picture for Life, the king showed up bedecked in full coronation regalia, an outfit passed down from father to son.

For readers of Life, this was a new vision of Africa, Staples explains: "People hadn't seen that kind of detail and that kind of costume and that kind of beauty and dignity before."

"It took him three hours to get dressed for this photograph, and the costume itself weighs over 300 pounds," Staples says.

Once he was ready, the king made a request of Elisofon.

"The king wanted a full-length mirror to be brought out so he could see how he looked," Staples says. "And [Elisofon] said, 'The only other time that happened to me ... was with Ginger Rogers.' "

The photo is regal and dignified. But the caption Life put with it was disparaging: "A fat black monarch."

Elisofon hated that caption. He spent much of his career as a photographer and filmmaker providing evidence of a rich, diverse and modern Africa — evidence for all America, and all the world, to see.

"I think what he did is he created a more intimate view of Africa. There was a humanity there," Staples says. "He was actually trying to educate audiences in the U.S. about how he perceived the real Africa to be."

Today, tourists visit Africa regularly — in planes, not pokey prewar ships. Their exposure to what was once only viewed as a remote, exotic, often fearful place was launched by the photographs Eliot Elisofon started taking there almost 70 years ago.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's been a bitter cold winter in Washington, D.C., as in so many parts of this country. But our special correspondent Susan Stamberg found a place that is warming and enlightening. It's an exhibit at the Museum of African Art on the National Mall.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Before World War II, most Americans got their ideas about Africa from movies, filmed on Hollywood sound stages.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TARZAN YELL)

STAMBERG: "Tarzan, the Ape Man," in the African jungles. After the war, thanks in no small part to the work of a Life magazine photographer named Eliot Elisofon, a new light was shed on what had been viewed as the Dark Continent.

AMY STAPLES: He redefined Africa in a new and a complex way for American audiences. And he brought Africa into their living rooms in Life magazine.

STAMBERG: Curator Amy Staples, she created this exhibit from an archive of 60,000 prints and negatives Elisofon gave to the African Art museum, which he helped to found. In the late 1940s, he converted an old ambulance into a studio and drove it from Cape Town to Cairo.

STAPLES: He came in early. He was probably one of the first photographers to travel extensively in Africa after World War II.

STAMBERG: He came upon a Sudanese woman and got her on the cover of Life.

STAPLES: The Heroic pose that she has, the beauty of her headdress, her confidence...

STAMBERG: Another woman wears a pendant with etchings of Sudanese village life.

STAPLES: These are made out of aluminum that came from a downed airplane.

STAMBERG: He bought the pendant. He liked showing how traditional mixed with modern in African design and crafts. Amy Staples says Eliot Elisofon got the Africa bug in 1942 as a combat photographer with General George Patton.

STAPLES: He photographed the first action pix of World War II from Tunisia. That was an important trip for him. He actually became interested in Africa because of the '42 trip. And then he went back to Africa for Life to cover visit of King George VI.

STAMBERG: Traveling with the British king, in 1947 Elisofon encounters a King of the Congo and asked to take his picture for Life. The king shows up bedecked in full coronation regalia, an outfit passed down from father to son.

STAPLES: This costume is beautifully decked out with cowry shells and beads and brass wire, he's wearing medals, a headdress.

STAMBERG: ...leopard skin, brass bracelets climb his legs

STAPLES: People really hadn't seen that kind of detail and that kind costume, and that kind of beauty and dignity before.

STAMBERG: He holds a spear in one hand, a lance in the other. Oh, and on his head, a helmet with a handful of feathers stuck on top.

STAPLES: It took him three hours to get dressed for the photograph. And the costume, itself, weighs over 300 pounds.

STAMBERG: Once he was ready, the king made a request of Elisofon.

STAPLES: The king wanted a full-length mirror brought out so he could see how he looked. And Elisofon said: The only other time that happened to me was with Ginger Rogers.

STAMBERG: Regal, dignified, but the caption Life put with the picture was disparaging.

A Fat Black Monarch.

Elisofon hated that caption and spent much of his career as a photographer and filmmaker providing evidence to the contrary; evidence for all America and the rest of the world to see.

I think what he did is he created a more intimate view of Africa - there was a humanity there. He was really trying to educate audiences in the United States about how he perceived the real Africa to be.

Today, tourists visit Africa regularly - in planes, not pokey pre-war ships. Their exposure to what was only viewed as a remote, exotic, often fearful place, was launched by the photographs Eliot Elisofon started taking there almost 70 years ago.

I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: And you can see some of Eliot Elisofon's work at NPR.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.