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THE PHOTOGRAPHER Alfred Eisenstaedt - Eisie to all who knew him as more than a byline - epitomized the ambitions of the most influential magazine of the 20th century, Life.

Like Life in its heyday, from the World War II years into the 1960s, Eisenstaedt's pictures seemed to reflect the essence of American optimism and self-confidence, pausing only briefly to report on unrest elsewhere in the world and on the less sunny side of the United States' rapidly growing consumer society.By the time he died, on Aug. 23 at the age of 96, his place in the pantheon of modern photojournalism had long since been secured, even though the magazine he worked for and helped define had passed into a sad, mutated oblivion nearly 25 years earlier.

While Life photojournalism is most closely identified with the picture-essay form - a skillful combination of photographs, words and layout that hooked millions of readers from the moment of the magazine's birth in 1936 - Eisenstaedt's talent was the single tell-all image.

Ego-driven talents like W. Eugene Smith might pout, yell and threaten to quit when their picture stories had to be squeezed to fit into 12 pages, but Eisenstaedt was content to have just one page, preferably the cover, which he captured no less than 90 times. He instinctively knew that photographers are remembered because of memorable images.

His picture of the aggressive, balletic, delirious kiss between a sailor and a nurse during the V-J Day celebration in Times Square is not only his signature image but also Life's; it is the most widely reproduced of the magazine's millions of file photographs.

But just as often he worked behind the scenes of public events, seeking out the casual, candid and inconsequential. An exuberant line of children parading behind a University of Michigan drum major; little Caroline Kennedy upstaging her proud and handsome father, then a senator with his hat just tossed into the presidential ring - images like these, as well as those of Hollywood celebrities and European royalty, were this photographer's stock in trade.

The small 35-mm camera was the instrument that allowed Eisenstaedt's eyewitness approach. Taking up where Erich Salomon left off in the 1920s, he carried his Leica behind the scenes first in Germany (where he caught a classic shot of a clearly unappreciative Joseph Goebbels) and, after Hitler's rise to power, in the United States.

In New York he signed a lifetime contract with a picture agency, which passed assignments on to him, but once his knack for being in the right place at the right time became known to the editors of Life, the contract was conveniently voided.

"To see life; to see the world" was the opening line of the prospectus that Henry Luce used to launch Life, and to make this dream a reality Eisenstaedt, a well-known contributor to German and English "illustrated" magazines, was called in to work on the prototype issue.

He became one of the four original staff photographers on the Life payroll, joined by Margaret Bourke-White, Thomas McAvoy and Peter Stackpole. As a staff member he outlasted all of them, as well as such other major Life lensmen as Cornell Capa, David Douglas Duncan, Leonard McCombe, Carl Mydans and George Silk.

So indefatigable was Eisenstaedt that he continued to work well into his 90s, managing such assignments as photographing President Clinton and his family. Until a few years ago he commuted to his office at the Time-Life headquarters on the Avenue of the Americas by walking across Manhattan, and he was renowned for his morning regimen of push-ups and sit-ups, which he maintained daily until advised that rest might be a better exercise for a man of his age.

Like the weekly version of Life, Eisenstaedt was an original, and his influence is destined never to be duplicated. Photojournalists, not to mention large-format magazines catering to picture essays, have fallen on hard times, done in by a combination of television, 24-hour news, their own stylistic repetition and changing viewer expectations.

But whenever Americans think back to their most glorious era of magazines, and to the bread-and-butter, no-nonsense, no-esthetic-posturing picture makers who seemed to make it all possible, they will think of Eisie and see his pictures floating like motes in the collective mind's eye.