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Stunning African photographs and objects offer unique insight now at Smithsonian

Elisofon's photo of a camel caravan is among many stunning images in "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.
Elisofon's photo of a camel caravan is among many stunning images in "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art.
Photo by Eliot Elisofon. National Museum of African Art, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, Smithsonian Institution

"Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon"


Pioneering "LIFE" photographer Eliot Elisofon's African images and objects, now on display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, offer a fascinating, rare view of that continent as it emerged from colonialism in the 20th century.

Elisofon's "iconic images shaped the way we see Africa today. He documented Africa in a way no one had before, or since," said Amy Staples, senior archivist of the museum's Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives.

The photojournalist traveled to Africa on 11 expeditions, beginning in 1947 -- the first Westerner to photograph its people and landscape -- and became an authority on Africa.

The retrospective free exhibition, "Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon" that opened Nov. 21 celebrates the 40th anniversary of his photographic archives. It was a founding collection of the National Museum of African Art (NMAA), with more than 700 artworks, 80,000 color images, and 120,000 feet of motion picture film.

This stunning exhibit is the first time many of these objects -- costumes, masks, jewelry, textiles, and far more -- have been displayed with photographs of them. All images are original prints.

Here are just a few pairings of the "LIFE" staff photographer's images with the items they picture:

  • The exhibit bursts to life immediately with a full-body costume including raffia fringe skirt, knotted fiber and cane mask with huge tubular eyes, worn for ceremonies by Pende peoples of Gungu (Democratic Republic of the Congo) -- paired with photographs of their ritual initiation performance.

The entrance wall quotes Elisofon's (1911-1973) life goal, "... to try to take pictures that are impossible to take." This exhibit demonstrates that he accomplished his mission impossible.

  • King Mbopey Mabiintsh ma-Kyeen, in full (700-pound) coronation regalia. The image ran full-page in "LIFE" in 1947 -- its first story on a black African. The Kuba king reigned Mushenge village of then-Belgian Congo, now Democratic Republic of the Congo, from 1939 until his assassination in 1969.

The royal took three hours to don the luxuriant robes finely detailed with embroidered raffia and covered with leopard skin, teeth, feathers, beads, bells, cowrie shells, and King Leopold II medals. The photos, and those of Kuba master carvers, blacksmiths, and weavers at work, are shown next to gifts the Kuba king gave his photographer: an intricately carved wooden cup in the shape of a man's head, a wooden carved box, and a gracefully designed iron razor.

  • Shilluk woman wearing pendants in Sudan

This cover photo of LIFE's "The Nile" issue Nov. 20, 1950 was the magazine's first cover to feature an African woman. Elisofon's original photo is paired with the engraved pendants with fur tassels and plant fibers worn by the goddess-like woman, plus photos of a Shilluk artist making pendants from aluminum he gathered from a plane wreck.

  • Throwing knife from the Gobu peoples in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

In Elisofon’s multiple exposures of a throwing knife, he was trying to "explode the object into recognition as a work of art." That he certainly did.

As NMAA curator Bryna Freyer said, Elisofon's "photographs of objects always made them look even better than they do."

Many of his images like Throwing Knife were experimental, and reveal the strong influence of cubism, abstract expressionism and Dadaism, especially his artist friend Marcel Duchamp. The multi-talented Elisofon was also a painter, and his artworks are in NMAA and other major museums.

Near a slideshow of many Elisofon photos, ranging from the pyramids to apartheid, Freyer noted, "His monumental photographs ... gave Africa a real sense of presence." A camel caravan across the desert in front of the pyramids of Giza, Egypt at dusk is not only monumental, but also momentous.


  • Among his numerous firsts were his shots of the famed "Mountains of the Moon", Rwanda's Ruwenzori Mountains. He termed the arduous trip, climbing 15,500 feet to Maguerite Glacier in 1951, the "nine worst days of my life." He managed to take magnificent photos despite torrential rains, snow, mud, damaged camera equipment, an avalanche that almost killed two members of the expedition...
  • Elisofon was the first combat photographer to cover World War Two in North Africa.

"He was in a plane crash in North Africa, jumped out of the plane, lost his pants, but kept on photographing -- No matter what, he always kept on shooting," Freyer said. "He was absolutely crushed that 'LIFE' did not use that photo, but used one of him in his boxer shorts, photographing away."

  • Elisofon pioneered color photography, and wrote the influential book "Color Photography" in 1962.
  • He created "field photography" or shooting cuisine in the geographic location where it was made or produced.
  • Elisofon was also the first photographer to write a cookbook, "Food Is A Four Letter Word". The intro was written by his friend, Gypsy Rose Lee.

Yes, the namesake of "Gypsy" sparked his interest in food -- and his interest in Africa!

Food first. She began her intro, "Eliot didn't know he had a palate before he met me." And the stripper concluded it by saying, "...Eliot grabbed his camera, I grabbed my G-string and we screamed good-bye to each other while racing in opposite directions on Lexington Avenue."

Gypsy Rose Lee 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 cookbook and his typewritten recipe for beef cabbage soup, sparked his lifelong passion for collecting and preserving African arts and photography.

Africa was his main passion among his many endeavors. He had so much energy, and so many interests. None other than General Patton, Elisofon's first cover shot for "LIFE", nicknamed the photographer "Hellzapoppin".

"He was an excellent chef, writer (many essays and about a dozen books), exceptionally well-read, a great conversationalist..." Freyer praised, but added. "He could nag, he could push -- he was absolutely determined to get the best shot."

He got these best shots not only of Africa, but also of movie stars like Lana Turner, which are in this glorious exhibition. Hollywood's far out of Africa, but who cares?

"When Hollywood was awash with jungle movies, Tarzan movies, and other degrading images of Africa," said archivist Amy Staples, "Elisofon brought beauty and aesthetics to the image."

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 continues until Aug. 24, 2014. (Disclosure: I was Washington Correspondent for LIFE long after Elisofon was on its staff.)

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