Interview and transcript © 1990 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation and added supplemental biographic information.
Arnold Eagle was one of the great cross-over photographers of the 20th Century — he could not be pigeon-holed. Look at his work capturing the gritty street scenes and tenement canyons — as well as his recording for all time of the dwindling numbers and fading folkways of 1920’s and ’30s immigrant Orthodox Jews — on New York’s Lower East Side, and what he seems to be is a supreme documentary photographer. But then he surprises you by moving just as comfortably and definitively in the more rarefied world of ballet, being one of the most important dance and dancer portraitists, and leaving behind some of the best (and, occasionally, only) evidence of the beauty and fluidity of Martha Graham, Jose Limon and others. Call him a supreme still photographer, and you find yourself having to backtrack, because much of his lasting, most interesting work comes from the time when he was the cinematographer for the avant-garde filmmaker, Dada-ist Hans Richter(bio) — and that, in later years, it was filmmaking, not photography per se, that he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York City. Talk to him about his skill with a camera and his success in the photography business, and he would tell you that the best thing he’d ever done was to become a teacher.
“I never considered myself an artist; I consider myself a photographer.”
Eagle was born in Hungary in 1909. He came to America, specifically Brooklyn, New York, in 1929, and by 1935 was busy shooting for the WPA. Soon he was traveling across the U.S., capturing images of the effects of the Depression for the Farm Security Administration’s Historical Section, run by the now-legendary Roy Stryker (bio). A trip for the FSA to the South to document the making of the film Louisiana Story was important to Eagle for two reasons: it introduced him to the filmmaker, Robert Flaherty (bio), and, at around the same time, Eagle met Richter, with whom he would not only become lifelong friends but a collaborator, most notably in the well-known art film, Dreams That Money Can Buy (1944-47). Both of these encounters led Eagle to realize his future work would be in filmmaking (and, later, the teaching of filmmaking); also, he was able to enter Richter’s artistic world, and there mixed with and photographed the day’s most vital cutting-edge artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder.
Writes art and photographic scholar Christopher Phillips: “Eagle’s social concerns led him to use the camera to record this period of crisis (the Depression), but … (he) wished to show not only what stood to be corrected, but also what was to be appreciated. Thus he was led to preserve for future generations vivid glimpses of a New York that is already receding into the past. His photographs are stamped with the same social curiosity, human compassion, and historical awareness that characterize the man himself.”
Eagle died October 25, 1992.
This interview with Eagle took place in his office on East 26th Street, New York City, on April 5, 1990.
“Life Is Interesting”
ASMP: We’re interviewing Arnold Eagle in his office …
Eagle: In his office in his 80th year of life.
ASMP: Are you 80?
Eagle: I was 80 in December
ASMP: Aren’t you amazed?
Eagle: No. When I’ll be 90 I’ll be amazed. Naturally it’s much nicer to be 30 or 20 or even 50, but life is interesting.
“I don’t think people respect enough what the camera can do.”
Eagle: I’m still teaching.
ASMP: Where are you teaching?
Eagle: I’m teaching at The New School. I have two courses. One is on editing film, and I combined film and video for the first time, because I felt that unless people knew how to edit film they cannot edit tape. Although it is the same cinematic principle, somehow it’s like … I had a feeling at one time, when the 35-millimeter camera came out, that we really should work with a larger camera first — maybe a Linhoff or a larger camera. Then you can have really a little respect for the 35, because 35 is click, click, click.
ASMP: You have a respect for care and composition.
Eagle: I always used to say to my students that this trigger finger has very little to do with pictures. It’s the thinking that really makes a photograph. And people emphasize many times the wrong things, for instance, in equipment, even. There was an article in Popular Photography, May, 1939, about them paying $2000 to about 10 photographers, each, to give them a $6 box camera. And the stories were unbelievable, the photographs were just as beautiful as anything. These were really the top photographers in the country and they got top pay for the thing, and they created a most marvelous set of pictures — no matter what they wanted, models and all kind of things — with a simple $6 camera. There are photographs by Victor Kaplan, by Munkasci (bio) and even Hutchinson. The top commercial photographers. Even if taken by an 8-by-10 camera, it would be no different.
I don’t think people respect enough what the camera can do. They are too much involved in trying to be artists. One of the things is, I never considered myself an artist; I consider myself a photographer. And all of us can do it. You ask Stryker or Edward Weston or Paul Strand, “Are you an artist?” — “No, sir, I’m a photographer.”
Photography has qualities that no other medium has, and there’s no reason why photographers have to imitate art, or paintings, or the other kind of thing. And it’s a very important thing, because I think photography is a very, very important medium and has done a great deal for humanity. And, therefore, using photography for its utmost is really a very important skill, and that’s how the technique should be used, you see.
Back in the 19th century we had the photographers who were fighting for recognition. The first photographers … art didn’t want to accept photographers at all. Then artists started using photography for their own purposes. A great many early portraits were made by Daguerre and the painters just copied them, you see. So, instead of keeping a model sitting for two or three days, they just had a photograph taken. They recognized the importance of photography, but they used it as a tool.
I remember my first photograph, when I got my first Graflex camera in 1931. It was a roll-film camera, 122 I think it was, it was a postcard-size camera — three and a quarter by five, or something like that — and, having had my early training in Hungary in an art school, I felt I wanted to be an artist. If you went to a so-called salon exhibition in 1925 or 1930, what you found there was a lot of fruit in bowls, pictorial, with a grape hanging over, with a bottle there — all photographed. I went to these exhibitions and started doing the same thing as they do. I remember putting up a nude and I put some vaseline on her so she looks like porcelain. It was a pretty arrangement of the photograph, but I don’t think the photograph was a great work of art.
Finally I realized this was not really the way to go. There was an organization called the Film and Photo League. This was an organization by the International Workers League, an international organization. They were interested in photography mainly as propaganda, because most of the photographs they were interested in were also newsreels of worker strikes or the workers’ battle against the police, of picket lines, homeless people, because they felt that photography is the best medium which can convince people. I wasn’t very happy with the Film and Photo League originally because they were really quite a radical organization. They were actually controlled by the Communists, originally. I never accepted the dogmatic approach to social problems. But they recognized the fact that photography was terrifically important in exposing social problems.
I discovered also through them that the great ability or character of photography is the fact that it’s able to record details that no other medium can do — textures and details. Because it’s capturing one moment in time it becomes very convincing. So, when people look at a photograph, they really realize that this is really truth, that they’re looking at something with reality and therefore it’s believable.
But, unfortunately, photography can be manipulated and can be artificial, and when it does that it loses an important quality of being able to record the reality, and therefore I think it’s very unfortunate that a lot of photographers left that important thing and tried to do artificial things which actually distorts reality.
“I came from Budapest …”
Eagle: My first project had nothing to do with social conditions, but I was photographing the religious Jews in New York. I spent about five or six months photographing people down on the East Side, the synagogues, the shtetl. This was 1935 and you saw very few young people following the traditions — so it was very fascinating. This group was, for me, a very important culture group, which I felt was going to disappear in one generation.
ASMP: Did you come from a shtetl in Hungary?
Eagle: No, I came from Budapest and I wasn’t exposed to this, so this was for me a new thing. Budapest is very much like New York. But then I came here and met these people and I was very taken by that thing, especially leaving Hungary with a not very friendly feeling, because I was thrown out of school because … Hungary had the first anti-Semitic official policy of a government. In Hungary, all the schools belonged to the government — public schools — so I had no place to go. I had been in Rial Gymnasium, which is sort of a high school for engineering — I always felt I was very good in mathematics. The only place — we weren’t rich enough to go to a private school — the only thing I could do was to go into art school. I studied art when I was 15 or 16. And I started to paint the whole year and I thought I’d become an artist. So, when I came to this country I still was thinking about my experiences in art school, and being an artist.
ASMP: How old were you when you came?
Eagle: About 17.
ASMP: Did you have family here?
Eagle: My father was here and I came here with my mother and my sister and brother. An interesting thing happened to me when I came here. I used to go down to a place called Chester’s Zunbarg. It was a resort, full of intellectuals, or leftists, in Woodburne, New York. Eliot (bio) and Ella Elisofon used to be there and he was a great artist and she was a great lover of art. By that time it was 1937, ‘38, and I was by that time a photographer. So I brought in a whole bunch of pictures and they hung them up all over the place down there, and I was Arnold Eagle, the Great Photographer. But then, a few years later, my father — who was a cake baker — suddenly got a job there without me knowing it, and suddenly I heard that everybody was crazy about him, because his cakes were absolutely the greatest things. So they didn’t call me any more Arnold Eagle, the Great Photographer. Now it was Arnold Eagle, the Baker’s Son.
“We represented photographers by having the best photographers.”
ASMP: Were you at that first ASMP meeting that was in Freeport, Long Island?
Eagle: I really don’t remember that, but it was called The Society of Magazine Photographers.
ASMP: SMP. What’s the number of your membership card? You said 37?
Eagle: 37, yes. ASMP started with people like Philippe Halsman (bio) and Eugene Smith (bio) and Ike Vern. Ike Vern was president at that time, and he decided that I should come in. I said, “I’m not a magazine photographer” — by that time I was doing mostly industrial photography and documentary photography. The best photographers in the country were members of ASMP. We were interested mainly in gaining respect for photographers. It was quite a problem of becoming a union, because you have to be certified and all kinds of things. But we represented photographers by having the best photographers.
ASMP: You had a lot of clout.
Eagle: Clout, yes — and Philippe Halsman and Bradley Smith. So I was very enthusiastic about this group because, although they were not really documentary photographers, they were making good photographs. It was journalistic type of photography, which was very close to what I was doing.
ASMP: Were you involved in some of those big arguments they had about policy? There were a lot of disagreements as to standards of the organization and who should be admitted and what should be expected of the organization.
Eagle: That’s right. The prestige of the organization was important, therefore they didn’t want to get beginners in the thing, or people who were not interested. And, because they called themselves magazine photographers, you had to prove that 50 percent of your income came from magazine assignments and that you were not really a commercial photographer. I don’t know if Edward Weston was a magazine photographer, but they accepted him as a great photographer, or Paul Strand. But they did not want commercial photography and they didn’t think that fashion photography was important at that time. Today, I’m sure they are taking over the whole organization. But at that time fashion photography was not important. We became a little bit aware of them later on — because of the high fees they used to get — but, on the whole, we were not interested in commercialism.
They didn’t discriminate against documentary photographers, but documentary photography and journalism were very close. Also, in commercialism, there’s a lot of artificiality, which they rejected. They felt that the minute photography started getting artificial and manipulative that it destroys the believable quality of the photograph. They were interested in using photography as a medium of communication.
ASMP: But within ten years they were accepting commercial photographers in the ASMP.
Eagle: Yes, they did.
ASMP: They made a big pitch for allowing anybody who earned their money in photography into the organization, because they said you shouldn’t be competitors.
Eagle: But in the beginning we were. They were very proud of being a very exclusive group of photographers.
ASMP: And you felt that it should stay that way?
Eagle: Well, to some extent, yes. I didn’t think that, for instance, commercial photography is art or is photography. It was usually studio photography. Most of the magazine photographers didn’t have studios. I didn’t have a studio. So we didn’t want to accept “businessman photographers,” the business of photography.
ASMP: And now it’s all business.
Eagle: All business.
“Belonging to the ASMP meant prestige.”
ASMP: At one point ASMP became a union?
ASMP: How did you feel about that?
Eagle: I was a supporter, but my original idea was that I didn’t think it was going to be successful. A union means that you allow people working for one employer, and most of the people were really on assignments. The only people that you could never really organize were the Life magazine photographers; they should have been in a union, but they didn’t want to, because they had all the benefits of a union without moving into the union. So I didn’t think getting into a union was important.
ASMP: It was recognized by the National Labor Relations Board, but it didn’t work.
Eagle: That’s right, but they really didn’t get any kind of contracts with photographic organizations. They got agreements. They got some minimum standards, which is more important. And that came from photographers themselves, not because of fighting for it as a union. They did try to boycott certain magazines that would, for instance, exploit photographers. One of the things they stopped was doing photographs on speculation. Sometimes a magazine would give an assignment to a photographer and say, “If you like to do this, go ahead and do it,” but without offering any kind of commitments. The ASMP felt that a magazine should make a commitment for the photography.
ASMP: Didn’t you think that the ASMP provided strength?
Eagle: Yes. There was a great amount of prestige that it gave to photography, mainly because of the members that were there who could ask for certain things. And, second, because they decided themselves to have certain standards, which they thought we should follow. At that time I don’t think there was much problem about who kept the negatives. The magazines had no place for the negatives. Maybe Life magazine had, but most of the other magazines had no files for negatives — they were not interested in negatives. So first the photographer would sell them, then he could sell the pictures to somebody else. I think there was an agreement that the magazines should keep them for at least six months before the pictures were sold to somebody else. But there was never a question of them owning the rights for the photographs. And the magazines usually just accepted the reproduction rights for one issue or something.
ASMP: Single reproduction rights.
Eagle: That’s right. And that was very important.
ASMP: It is now, it’s still a big fight now.
Eagle: I know. I don’t think conditions have changed that much; the management is a little bit more aggressive and more strict. Also, there’s much more money involved. At that time, if you went off on assignment and you got $100 a day, that was considered a very high pay, and also they went with expenses.
ASMP: Those early agreements were hard fought and didn’t come easy.
Eagle: No, because the photographers had nothing. Belonging to the ASMP meant prestige, that you were accepted among the top photographers and that’s why, for instance, we did support entrance requirements; they had to be recommended by, I think, two members, and they had to approve of them. So we always got the cream. I remember for many years our membership was never more than 120 and really very effective.
The discussion itself in the Society — we never talked about photography as an art, you know. But we did talk about conditions.
Not too many of the Life photographers were really active in the ASMP, though they supported it, but they couldn’t be active because Life magazine did not want to have a contract with the union. That was one of the big problems. Life magazine was the most important employer of photographers at that time. The others, like Saturday Evening Post, all used mostly freelances, you see. Life magazine was the only one that really had “staff” photographers, though most of them were not really staff. Most of the people did not really get a monthly salary, or even a contract.; only those who were on the masthead. Later on, magazines stopped using photographers as permanent employees.
“… A photographer’s impression is a very important thing.”
ASMP: The big magazines — Ladies Home Journal, Fortune — would do essays. Nowadays they don’t.
Eagle: Sure. Then we used to go out six or seven or eight days, and sometimes a month, so we could do a proper job. When I joined Roy Stryker’s group, it was a marvelous thing, because he would send you off for a whole month or two months. He sent me out to the lumber industry, but he said, “The only thing, I don’t want you to pick up the camera for a whole week before you start taking pictures. I want you to look around and see and learn.” You see, he felt that a photographer’s impression is a very important thing.
ASMP: That was wonderful to be paid to do that.
Eagle: It was marvelous. Imagine, at that time, I think I was getting a steady $125 a week …
ASMP: That’s what Roy Stryker paid?
Eagle: Yes, with very generous expense accounts, but we didn’t have to work every day. We used to come back and make captions for ourselves for two or three weeks and still be on the payroll.
ASMP: Do you remember when you went to work for Stryker?
Eagle: I think 1945 through 1949. This was where I met so many interesting people. Standard Oil Company was doing a film with Robert Flaherty, so they sent me out to photograph Flaherty and how he makes a movie. When I came there, he was a little bit suspicious of me because I came from Standard Oil Company, and he wanted to keep Standard Oil Company away from his job, so he felt I was sort of a spy, maybe. But then he accepted me and I became very, very friendly with him. He helped me make my first film — The Pirogue Maker, which I did in 1949, I think.
“I think it’s like receiving a treasure.”
Eagle: I remember when the Yeshiva University had my first show, which was very important, about two and a half years ago. They asked me, “What was the most important thing that you did?” And I said, the most important thing I feel that I was doing is teaching. I was teaching all the time, 35 years now. I felt that it was very important, I said, because I met so many marvelous people who gave me so much.
I think it’s like receiving a treasure — what do you do with it? You have to leave it, you have to give it over. And one of the things I tried to do is to give it to my students, the things that I have learned from all these great people, like with Stryker, with Flaherty and Hans Richter. So I had a great, marvelous background and the background helped me to deal with students. A lot of my students are very important filmmakers of today. And I think that’s the great payment. It wasn’t a question of exhibition; that wasn’t important to me. My contact with people was very important.
ASMP: And the ASMP also implements that, because you meet a lot of interesting people at the ASMP. You learn from it. Shop talk, or whatever it is, that contact …
Eagle: That’s right. You do. You have to get that contact with people, what they’re doing. There was no competition in the ASMP. We never felt jealousy because somebody was successful. We admired him, we accepted him and we liked it. That’s one of the great things about the ASMP: that we didn’t have that jealousy, that we weren’t competing with each other. Because somebody has a job, that is his job. We were not going to try to take it away from him. We were very proud to belong to the same group as they belonged to. I was very proud of being a member with Phil Halsman, for instance, and I was the one who recommended him to teach at The New School. I told them, “This is a great portrait photographer. You couldn’t have anybody better than him.” So, it was sort of a mutual admiration society. We really felt that we are, you know, we are important because the people that we are working with are important.
“I wanted to be a photographer.”
ASMP: Would you wish that you were anything else but a photographer in your life?
Eagle: I don’t think so. There’s nothing in the world that I want to be. I don’t want to be an editor, I never wanted to be a writer. I wanted to be a photographer. I had these documentaries that I did. For instance, when they tore down the 2nd Avenue el and, by that time, I think the 6th Avenue and 9th Avenue els didn’t exist any more, I realized this is the last railroad that’s running into the city. Before I came to this country, people told me, “You know, they have trains running in New York on top of the houses.” So when I came here I was interested, but then I realized the importance of the el to people’s lives. Then I looked at the construction. I wanted to preserve that because, it’s true enough, they tore it down and sent the scrap iron to Japan and then they started the war, so we got that back in the form of bullets.
Then I started with Martha Graham (bio), I think in 1942. I continued there for almost 15 years — I photographed every single Martha Graham ballet. I had a great deal of respect for her; I felt she was really a national treasure. I photographed her when she was still dancing, and I always felt she was a great, great dancer.
ASMP: You were using strobe, weren’t you, by that time?
Eagle: Yes. Then people like Sophie Maslow (bio) and Merce Cunningham (bio) — to me they were really the great artists of all time. I felt a great creative energy there, and hoped I could preserve it. So, even my dance photographs are interesting because I wasn’t interested in showing, “Look, what a great photographer I am.” When I photographed an artist’s work, or an artist’s creation, I felt he’s the important thing and therefore I tried to get as much as possible the spirit of what’s going down there. I loved to show how great an artist Martha Graham was, not what a great artist Arnold Eagle is. That’s why I said I never thought of myself as the artist, but a photographer.
The Photographers: Arnold Eagle. These images, from the Collections of the Pennsylvania Department, The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, show a handful of examples of Eagle’s keen social documentarian eye. The necessary but annoying aspect of this site is the Carnegie Library watermark pasted on each photo, but the viewer can still get a feel for what Eagle was doing.
New Deal Network Photo Gallery. One Third of a Nation was a look at the conditions of urban poverty in New York’s Lower East Side in the late 1930’s as captured by Eagle and project partner David Robbins. Here are nine excellent photos from that series. Clicking on the thumbnails provides a good-quality larger image.