'Life' Photographer Showed Africa Through A New Lens
February 10, 2014
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 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 General 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 6th."
Travelling with the British king, in 1947 Elisofon encountered a king of the Congo: Mbopey Mabiintsh ma‐Kyeenm. When he to take his picture for Life, the king showed up bedecked in full coronation regalia, an outfit passed down from father to son.