The Light of Day

Jack Eisenberg's self-portrait is of a lonely man living on the margins. But when he's behind the camera, something clicks.

Cover Story

February 03, 2002|By GLENN MCNATT | GLENN MCNATT,SUN ART CRITIC

A lean man in a trench coat stands in a darkened lobby gazing out onto the street. Light from an open doorway beckons, but the man appears frozen in an attitude of perpetual watchfulness. Outside, people walk by seemingly unaware of the lonely figure in the shadows.

Jack Eisenberg, who photographed this scene at Baltimore's Rochambeau Apartments, Franklin and Charles streets, back in the 1980s, is a portly, white-haired man who looks more like Santa Claus than the shadowy silhouette in the trench coat. Yet in a way that figure is his alter ego -- the solitary observer of the passing parade, just outside the circle of light, who sees without being seen.

Eisenberg has devoted his life to photography, capturing images that haunt the imagination and touch the heart with their subtle, multiple meanings. But it is a career that has brought him little recognition or material reward. Instead, he ekes out a frugal existence, constantly scrimping and saving and worrying whether he'll have to choose between buying food or film.

At 61, Eisenberg remains one of Baltimore's virtually unknown treasures, a local genius with a battered Leica camera whose pictures of Israel and America are full of incident and detail, pathos and drama. And yet, as with the man in the trench coat, most people don't even know he's there.

Street photography is one of the most difficult forms of the craft because it requires split-second decisions and a quicksilver coordination between hand and eye to capture what photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson called "the decisive moment."

Eisenberg has captured hundreds of such moments during his career. There's whimsy in his pictures, and a deep humanism. His photographs are marvelously poised, insightful, compassionate and informed by wry humor whether the subject is a barbershop on Greenmount Avenue or a tense political standoff in Jerusalem. In his best pictures, there is an uncanny coincidence of composition and subject matter, so that the photographic form perfectly embodies its content.

But it's not just their formal qualities -- the play of light and shadow, the complex, layered juxtapositions of near and far -- that make Eisenberg's pictures compelling. They are also informed by a genuine historical erudition, both about Baltimore and Israel (before taking up the camera, Eisenberg earned a bachelor of arts degree in history at Columbia University in New York and later taught high school history in Baltimore County public schools). His photographs of African-Americans in Baltimore and Palestinians in the West Bank show a genuine empathy with the underdog. His Jerusalem pictures, in particular, evoke the feel of people living with adversity and terror and still enjoying life, be they Arab or Jew. His pictures are life-affirming in the deepest sense.

"I need to relate what I know intellectually to what I see in the world around me," he says. "Photography for me has been to go out and find something that is like an epiphany, a moment when everything becomes clear."

Over the years, he has shown his work in the occasional local show and published photographs in the Jewish Times, which for a while paid him as a stringer for stories from Israel. But the Times stopped publishing his photographs several years ago after a new editor took over, and Eisenberg hasn't found another outlet for his work.

Nor have the city's museums and galleries shown much interest, despite the fact that he has produced what amounts to a documentary treasure-trove of Baltimore images in the last 25 years. Part of the problem is Eisenberg himself. He is fanatical about doing things his own way -- so much so that he can seem argumentative or eccentric to people who don't know him.

So last month, Eisenberg decided to put on his own show in the modest Mount Washington home where he grew up and where he returned to live several years ago after his parents died. He mounted a couple of photo floodlights in the center of his living room to better display his art; the bright lights also emphasized the lifelong bachelor's domestic jumble.

The show focused on some two dozen mounted but unframed pictures Eisenberg shot in Israel during the country's most recent election campaign. Eisenberg, who is Jewish, has been photographing the Middle East since 1967, and he has seen hatred on both sides. But as a photographer his concern is always with the individuals who represent the human aspect of the conflict, not their politics.

There are shots of the second Palestinian intifada, which began in the fall of 2000, and the daily street demonstrations by Labor and Likud supporters, pictures of funerals of Israelis killed by Palestinians and of Palestinians killed by Israelis.

Eisenberg hoped to sell a few pictures, but mostly he did the show to keep his spirits up. He wants to return to Israel to photograph, but right now he's struggling just to make ends meet at home.

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