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.
For readers of Life, this was a new vision of Africa, Staples explains: “People hadn’t seen that kind of detail and that kind of costume and that kind of beauty and dignity before.”
“It took him three hours to get dressed for this photograph, and the costume itself weighs over 300 pounds,” Staples says.
Once he was ready, the king made a request of Elisofon.
“The king wanted a full length mirror to be brought out so he could see how he looked,” Staples says. “And [Elisofon] said, ‘The only other time that happened to me … was with Ginger Rogers.’ “
The photo is regal and dignified. But the caption Life put with it was disparaging: “A fat black monarch.”
Elisofon hated that caption. He spent much of his career as a photographer and film-maker providing evidence of a rich, diverse and modern Africa — evidence for all America, and all the world, to see.
“I think what he did is he created a more intimate view of Africa. There was a humanity there,” Staples says. “He was actually trying to educate audiences in the U.S. about how he perceived the real Africa to be.”
Today, tourists visit Africa regularly — in planes, not pokey pre-war ships. Their exposure to what was once only viewed as a remote, exotic, often fearful place was launched by the photographs Eliot Elisofon started taking there almost 70 years ago.