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Africa photography and art objects display opened Nov. 21 at Smithsonian

"LIFE" photographer Eliot Elisofon, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, 1947, Kenya. His photographs are paired with African items he collected. He became an authority on Africa.
"LIFE" photographer Eliot Elisofon, with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the distance, 1947, Kenya. His photographs are paired with African items he collected. He became an authority on Africa.
Courtesy of National Museum of African Art, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

"Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon", an intriguing exhibit that opened Nov. 21 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, pairs the renowned "LIFE" photographer's images with his fascinating collected masks, jewelry, textiles, and films.

The free retrospective exhibition celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives housed at the National Museum of African Art.

With his more than 50,000 black-and-white photographs and 30,000 color transparencies, and thousands of items of African art and other objects, Elisofon's archives served as the foundation of the museum. He was a major expert and lecturer on African art and culture.

More than any other photographer, Elisofon (1911-1973) shaped American perceptions of Africa during the mid-20th century, through his work as a staff photographer for "LIFE" Magazine, the museum noted. He traveled to Africa on 11 expeditions, beginning in 1947, to photograph its people and landscape.

He was the first Western photographer to do this. He also pioneered color photography in the 1950s, and the first photographer to write a cookbook, "Food Is A Four Letter Word" -- with an intro by his friend, Gypsy Rose Lee.

She, the namesake of "Gypsy", gave Elisofon his first item of African art, an ivory pendant made by the Pende peoples of the Congo. The gift, displayed with a first edition of the book and his typewritten recipe for beef cabbage soup, sparked his lifelong passion for collecting and preserving African arts and photography.

Other highlights of the exhibit include Elisofon’s feature stories in "LIFE" Magazine, his experimental art photographs, early color photography, and movies produced in Africa during the late 1940s to the early 1970s.

Elisofon told "Popular Photography" Magazine 50 years ago, "To me, photography has been a challenge; to produce images that are meaningful but not dogmatic, to be artistic but not arty..." He used his "camera as a magic carpet to see and study the meaning and beauty of civilizations and environments besides my own."

His original environment was New York's Lower East Side, where he was born into an impoverished Latvian Jewish family. He took his first photos with a Brownie camera, and developed them in the family's bathroom. He and a high school pal founded a photography studio, August & Co., which they made successful in the late 1930s.

Elisofon became the first staff photographer of the Museum of Modern Art. And after years of freelancing for "LIFE", in 1942 he was hired as a staff photographer, the dream of any photojournalist.

"His great energy often amazed his photographic subjects," wrote Loudon Wainwright in "The Great American Magazine: An Inside History of LIFE" (Knopf). Wainwright worked for the original "LIFE" for almost two decades until it closed, and was top editor of the re-launched "LIFE" until it closed.

Elisofon's photography subject Frank Lloyd Wright said "This lad reminds me of a hungry orphan let loose in a bakeshop."

General Patton nicknamed Elisofon "Hellzapoppin" during their photo shoot that became one of Elisofon's 28 covers of "LIFE" months before the U.S. entered World War Two.

He was the first to capture North Africa gunfire in 1942. By 1943, he was determined to be a great war photographer, and fretted over competition from LIFE's famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White. "'Oh, I've got the Bourke-White Blues,'" he said.

"'My ambition,' he once said, referring to the Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady, 'is to be a small Brady,'" the book quotes Elisofon.

Later, "in Hollywood he came to be regarded as an authority on color by movie professionals," Wainwright wrote.

He quotes Elisofon as saying, "'The fun I am having doing the color series dates back to the days when I was a fashion photographer and never had enough props of pretty girls to work with."

Elisofon's photographs of Lana Turner, and Katharine Hepburn adjusting her costume on the set of "The African Queen", are in the show.

"When Hollywood was awash with jungle movies, Tarzan movies, and other degrading images of Africa, Elisofon brought beauty and aesthetics to the image," said Amy Staples, senior archivist of the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. "Several of Elisofon's Africa images are iconic." Visitors will recognize many of these stunning images.

National Museum of African Art curator Bryna Freyer noted, "He documented Africa in a way no one had before -- or since. These iconic images shaped the way we see Africa today."

Be sure to see these images, paired with unique cultural items he collected, today or any day before it closes next August.

For more info: "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon", National Museum of African Art,, on the National Mall at 950 Independence Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. Free exhibit Nov. 21 until Aug. 24, 2014. (Disclosure: I was Washington Correspondent for LIFE long after Elisofon was on its staff.)

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