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The photos that LIFE magazine recently released reminded me of a learning experiment I passed around to staff not long ago. Take a look at the photo above and note your immediate impressions:

What did you first notice when you first saw this photo?
What went through your mind?
What drew you in? What did you wonder?
What is Einstein wearing?
What sense of Einstein do you get from this image?

I rifled through hundreds of photos of Einstein trying to find a marquee image for our two-part series on Einstein and the mind of god. I wanted photos that were fresh and not overused. Portraits that presented the more human, contemplative side of Einstein — the “inner being,” if you will.

Then, one of those Proustian moments: slipping on a jean jacket with a banded collar — a memory of a portrait of Einstein seated in a chair bathed in natural light. Ahhh, Lotte Jacobi! — whose photographs I had seen in 2004 at the National Museum of Women in Washington, D.C. And, of course, the exhibit’s title? “Focus on the Soul: The Photographs of Lotte Jacobi.”

Her work is intimate and often goes unnoticed. Her portraits are not the default portraits of Einstein commonly chosen for newspaper articles, blog entries, magazine spreads. I still can’t understand why. We’re fortunate to have set our eyes upon them.

Now, back to our experiment. Look at the following image. This is the original version of Jacobi’s print, without cropping.

Albert Einstein title image

Ask yourself the same questions as above and a few more:

Perhaps you have other observations?
What would you crop? How would you crop it?
What do you gain; what do you lose?

I have some fairly strong opinions, but I’ll table them so I can hear yours and ponder my own.


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13 Comments

In the final version, the focus is clearly on Einstein. However, the cathedral-looking building in the background also draws your attention and coupled with the word G-d in orange makes the connection between Einstein and G-d.

In the original, the attention is drawn inside to the desk and the pen in Einstein's hand and not outward to G-d.

He looks so tired. And he looks so normal. No better, no worse than the rest of us. There's a real world outside that window, with snow and trees and a church tower in the background. As brilliant and as imaginative as this man was, he lived in the same world we do and he faced the exact same eternity as we all face.

This is what I do for a living. And as a photojournalist, I know that we are taught to crop in the camera. The image that is shot is the image I intend. So, when I see this complete image, I know the photographer had something in mind.

The cropped image, one can't see the books or the pen/chalk/instrument he is hold. I could not tell he was wearing a leather jacket from the first photo, as it is B&W. I don't know the significants of these things, but I think the tell a more complete story. I also believe that complete story is what the photographer had in mind.

Great exercise. In the second photo I am drawn to the sheen on the arm of his leather jacket and the the position of his hand on the table, not unlike a pianonist's on the keys of a piano. What book is on the table? Is that a pipe in his hand behind his back? Is he watching a bird foraging in the snow below the window?

Of course there's the issue of that cathedrial in the background. He doesn't seem all that interested in it.

I have to say that I am drawn to his hands in the second photo. The first photo is severely....uninteresting.

The cropped photo puts focus on the mind of the man. What's he thinking? The one that isn't cropped reveals more personality. What kind of man was he?

Nan, I wanted to let you know that Krista referred to your critique of the cropped photos of Einstein in her recent TEDTalk at the United Nations, which you can watch on our blog. Thank you for contributing to the discussion!

The first thing I noticed was the snow and Einstein gazing at what appears to be a church just outside the window. What went through my mind was a poem I wrote about an experience I once had at my Grandfather's house when I was a young boy, gazing out a window at a church just about that far away during a blizzard, watching its occupants depart just after a morning service (btw... I love this photo):

A Winter's Tale



The white world howls,

The white world blinds,

The white world speaks with the church bells tolling,

Whispering whirring in the ear of the unknowing,

The homeward bound the suffering toiling,

Silhouettes wrenched from church doors come pouring,

Black worlds in a white world bent stooped and growing,

The bells echo in the hollows of the house front hall,

Mourners flicker a chiaroscuro on the living room wall,

My time is my own,

My death is not shared,

My knowledge fruitless,

My vanities ensnare,

Grandfather over canvas in colors playing,

Grandmother in dough her hands dance while shaping, 

Grandson enmeshed in presence unfolding,

From discords dissolving into harmonies disclosing,

Three knots of being in a field of lightness,

One knot tightens,

A moment brightens,

The field opens,

A world lies shining.

The crop shifts our focus from an image of Einstein and the outer world, especially that of nature and religion because of the church-like towers, to a man gazing inward, not looking out into the world nor down to his books but instead gazing beyond the borders of our view.

The uncropped image is far more revealing and interesting. The old heating unit and furniture help place him in the "time and space" in which he lived. The open book is suggestive of his inquisitive nature, as is his posture. I see an engaged, observant mind, captivated by something or someone below, probably seeing something extraordinary in something most of us would consider "ordinary".

The first photo was uninteresting and even frustrating to me. I wanted him to turn around. I did notice the snow but felt a real relief when I scrolled down to the second photo. It was more HIM -- I particularly loved seeing what he held in his hand, the open book on the table.

The cropped photo makes him appear more contemplative and solitary.
In the larger photo he seems to be anticipating something or someone arriving; and, the pen,
table and book in the picture add to the feeling that he is less alone and more engaged.

As a picture of Einstein, I like the uncropped original. But for the theme of Einstein's God, the first one is more surreal. It is less about about Einstein and more about the essence of being. He looks like he is contemplating something and the thing I noticed is that his gaze is fixed somewhere on the ground between him and the church. When I was a photo editor for a student newspaper, I probably would have cropped the picture at his elbow.