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University of Texas at Austin

Eliot Elisofon:

An Inventory of His Papers and Photographs at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator: Elisofon, Eliot, 1911-1973
Title: Eliot Elisofon Papers and Photography Collection
Dates: 1930-1988, undated (bulk 1942-1973)
Extent: 151 document boxes (62.97 linear feet), 5 oversize boxes (osb), 1 file cabinet drawer
Abstract: Eliot Elisofon's career as a photojournalist, filmmaker, author, artist, and collector of primitive art and sculpture is documented by photographs, transparencies, slides, negatives, films, research material, notes, photo captions, logbooks, correspondence, agreements and other documents, drafts, proofs, tear sheets, clippings, scrapbooks, catalogs, sketchbooks and artifacts, all dating from 1933 to 1988.
Call Number: Photography Collection PH-00066
Language: English
Access: Open for research with the exception of Elin Elisofon's biography research files (folders 77b.7-79a.4) which require her permission to use. Transparencies may be accessed but require 24 hours advance notice. Negatives cannot be accessed without curatorial approval.

Administrative Information

Acquisition: Gifts, 1992, 1998
Processed by: Katherine Mosley, 1999; Nicole Davis, 2012; Betsy Nitsch, 2015

The University of Texas at Austin, Harry Ransom Center

Biographical Sketch

Photographer, artist, art collector, author, and filmmaker Eliot Elisofon was born the son of immigrants Sarah and Samuel Elisofon in New York City on April 17, 1911. As a teenager, he became interested in both photography and painting. Elisofon graduated from DeWitt Clinton High School in 1929. For the next few years he worked at the New York State Workmen's Compensation Bureau while attending Fordham University at night, ultimately receiving a B.S. in 1933. Meanwhile, he continued to pursue his interest in photography, and in 1935 Elisofon, Marty Bauman, and Al Weiner opened a commercial photography studio named August and Company. As a commercial photographer, Elisofon expanded from product advertising photographs to fashion photography assignments for magazines such as Mademoiselle and Vogue. He also developed a strong interest in photography as social documentary. Elisofon's photographs documenting New York street scenes were exhibited in 1937 at the Pennsylvania Museum of Art in Philadelphia and at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York. In 1938 his work was exhibited at the East River Gallery and at the New School for Social Research, where he worked as an instructor. After showing his portfolio to the editors at Life magazine in 1937, Elisofon began receiving assignments from that magazine and others and decided to devote his career to photojournalism. He left the studio in 1938 to work as a freelance magazine photographer, producing photographs for magazines such as Fortune, Mademoiselle, Vogue, and Glamour. For Life, he also produced photographic essays on a variety of subjects, ranging from military exercises to refugees, and from actresses and plays to rural poverty in the South. In 1939 Elisofon worked as the first staff photographer for the Museum of Modern Art and became skilled at photographing works of art. He served as the president of the Photo League in 1940.
Elisofon joined the Life staff in 1942 as a war photographer-correspondent, and during World War II he covered the North African front, including General Patton's Tunisian campaign, as well as Sweden, Finland, Hawaii, and the surrender at Wake Island. In the post-war years he began working on large geographical photo essays in the United States and around the world. He had a special interest in Africa and became a collector of African art and an expert in that area. As a member of the Peabody Museum of Salem's 1956 expedition to the South Pacific, led by William A. Robinson, Elisofon photographed the voyage and collected artifacts from the South Sea Islands as the expedition traced the Polynesian migration route. He was appointed a Research Fellow in Primitive Art at Harvard University in 1958, and he was a member of the Harvard Peabody Museum's 1961 expedition to film tribal life in New Guinea. Elisofon remained a staff photographer for Life from 1942 to 1964 and then, although he also pursued freelance and commercial work, he continued to work for Life on a contract basis until the magazine suspended publication at the end of 1972. During those three decades Elisofon traveled more than a million miles on six continents, covering assignments on places, art, architecture, celebrities, food, and social subjects. He continued to do freelance work for Smithsonian magazine, National Geographic, Horizon, and other magazines until his death in 1973.
Elisofon was known for his experiments with color control, and he worked as a color consultant on the films Moulin Rouge, Bell, Book and Candle, and The Greatest Story Ever Told, among others. In 1965 he directed the prologue of the film Khartoum and a portion of Man Builds for National Educational Television. Elisofon was director of creative production for the ABC documentary Africa in 1967, and in 1972 he wrote, produced and directed a four-hour television series for Group W (Westinghouse Broadcasting Company) titled Black African Heritage.
Besides collecting primitive art and sculpture, other interests Elisofon pursued were cooking and painting, and he was able to take advantage of his worldwide travel as a photographer to develop all of these simultaneously. His photographs, watercolor paintings, and objects from his personal collection of primitive art have been exhibited throughout the United States and other countries.
Elisofon frequently lectured on a variety of subjects at museums, colleges and clubs around the country; topics included photography, African art, and his travels. He also wrote numerous articles and essays as well as several books, including the cookbook Food Is a Four-Letter Word (1948), The Sculpture of Africa (1958), Color Photography (1961), The Nile (1964), Java Diary (1969), and Erotic Spirituality (1971). He wrote and illustrated three of a series of Crowell-Collier's children's books showing a week in the lives of children in other countries. Elisofon contributed photographs to Joseph Campbell's edition of Heinrich Zimmer's The Art of Indian Asia (1955) and Arthur Knight's The Hollywood Style (1969), among others, and he also provided illustrations for publications by Time-Life Books, including a "Foods of the World" cookbook series.
Elisofon was married twice and had two daughters, Elin and Jill. Throughout his life Elisofon maintained a primary residence in New York City and a summer home in Maine. Elisofon died in New York City on April 7, 1973, as a result of a massive cerebral hemorrhage.
Elisofon was a founding trustee of the Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., in 1964 and at the time of his death was a curatorial associate. He bequeathed to that museum not only his collection of African art, but also his photographs, transparencies, and film footage of Africa and its art. The museum became the National Museum of African Art and the photographs are housed in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives. Before his death Elisofon also donated pieces of his African and Pacific art collection to that museum, the Museum of Primitive Art in New York, the Peabody Museum of Salem, Massachusetts, the Harvard Peabody Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, and other institutions.

Scope and Contents

Scope and Contents

Eliot Elisofon's career as a photojournalist, filmmaker, author, artist, and collector of primitive art and sculpture is documented by photographs, transparencies, slides, negatives, films, research material, notes, photo captions, logbooks, correspondence, agreements and other documents, drafts, proofs, tear sheets, clippings, scrapbooks, catalogs, sketchbooks and artifacts, all dating from 1933 to 1988. The archive is organized in ten series: I. Photography Files, 1933-1973, undated; II. Film and Television Projects, 1953-1973, 1986; III. Writings and Lectures, 1938-1973; IV. Artwork, 1935-1969, undated; V. Exhibitions, 1936-1986; VI. Private Art Collection, 1939-1969, undated; VII. Food Files, 1943-1969, undated; VIII. Correspondence, 1930-1973, undated; IX. About Elisofon, 1930-1985; and X. Elin Elisofon, 1976-1988, undated. Within each series material is arranged primarily in chronological order. For preservation reasons, photographic materials have been physically separated into three sets of document boxes according to format--prints and paper material, color transparencies, and black and white negatives. Oversize prints and paper material have been removed and housed in flat boxes, and glass slides are housed in a file cabinet drawer. However, the folder list keeps these materials together intellectually.
Elisofon's photography files, the first and largest series, are arranged by the date the photographs were originally taken, as much as can be determined, and not by the date they were published, since the images may have been published much later, in multiple publications, or not at all. Elisofon is remembered primarily as a photographer for Life magazine, as his relationship with that magazine spanned 35 years, and the collection reflects that dominance; the majority of the photographs were taken for that magazine or for Time-Life Books. Other photographs include those taken for personal reasons, for other books and publications, or for commercial assignments.
Other series relate to Elisofon's film and television projects, writings and lectures, artwork, exhibitions, art collection, food files, and correspondence. One series contains various materials about Elisofon, and another relates to his daughter Elin's work on a book and exhibition. Materials relating to films for which Elisofon served as a still photographer only are housed with the photography files, but materials relating to films for which he served in other technical capacities are located in the film series. Elisofon was a published author, and he also served as a visiting lecturer or instructor at numerous universities, museums, and clubs. Materials relating to those writings and lectures form two subseries within the Writings and Lectures series. In addition, Elisofon was an artist noted for his watercolors of nudes and flowers; his sketchbooks, as well as photographs of some of his paintings, can be found in the archive (Series IV). Materials relating to exhibitions of Elisofon's paintings are combined with items relating to exhibitions of his photographs and objects from his collection of primitive art in a single series (Series V). Other manuscripts and photographs, including records of sales and donations, relating to Elisofon's private art collection are located within their own series (Series VI). Elisofon's culinary interest is reflected throughout the collection, and recipes are located in his logbooks as well as in the Food Files series. Wherever possible, materials have been maintained in their original order, so that correspondence located with particular files remains in those files, while other similar correspondence may be found in the Correspondence series. All correspondents in the papers are listed in the Index of Correspondents at the end of this guide.
Material about Elisofon is divided into five subseries. Transcripts and clippings of interviews, published articles, and essays about Elisofon form the first subseries. Scrapbooks, primarily containing early tear sheets and clippings about Elisofon, form the second subseries. Elisofon's personal files of medical papers, financial and legal documents, address books, and the like make up the third subseries. A fourth subseries comprises personal photographs, mainly of Elisofon. The fifth subseries contains periodicals collected by Elisofon that do not contain his work. Elin Elisofon's files from her work on a biography and exhibition on her father (Series IX) conclude the collection.
Because Elisofon's daughter Elin began sorting and organizing the material before it was acquired by the Ransom Center, she is very much a part of the archive. Besides providing much of the arrangement and many titles, she produced her own notes and correspondence; these are scattered throughout the collection, although the bulk of her work files are located in the final series. Eliot's and Elin's folder titles are indicated in the folder list by single quotation marks; these titles are usually the same as the story assignment title given by Life magazine.
Films, a videotape, and three empty film and negative containers have been removed from the archive and are housed separately in the Ransom Center. Books and periodicals, including some issues of Life, have been cataloged separately with the Center's book holdings. Those items are listed as Associated Materials at the end of this finding aid. Other lists at the end of this guide include Elisofon's cover photographs, published photographs of Elisofon, and prints and negatives of Elisofon, his wives and his daughters.

Outline of Series

  • Series I. Photography Files, 1933-1973, undated
  • Series II. Film and Television Projects, 1953-1973, 1986
  • Series III. Writings and Lectures, 1938-1973
  • Series IV. Artwork, 1935-1969, undated
  • Series V. Exhibitions, 1936-1986
  • Series VI. Private Art Collection, 1939-1969, undated
  • Series VII. Food Files, 1943-1969, undated
  • Series VIII. Correspondence, 1930-1973, undated
  • Series IX. About Elisofon, 1930-1985, undated
  • Series X. Elin Elisofon, 1976-1988, undated

Organization by Format Storage

  • Black and white prints, color prints, and paper material, boxes 1-80
  • Oversize material, boxes 81-82
  • Scrapbooks, boxes 83-85
  • Color transparencies, boxes 86-133
  • Black and white negatives, boxes 134-156
  • Glass slides, FC 13.8

Series Descriptions

Separated Material

The following film recordings have been removed from the archive and are cataloged separately with the Center's film collection:
16mm film:
  • 'Reel 2-Murchison Falls from below, and Nile animals,' one reel, undated
  • 'Color Clips - South Seas,' two reels, undated
  • 'COA 11445, Time--Elisofon, Reel 2, Orig. Kodak,' one reel, 20 Jan. 1960
  • 'Elisofon Material - Out Takes and Allan Grant Exposure Test, Dave Cazalet, 333 W. 52nd St.,' one reel, undated
  • 'Truman Announcement, Sept. 1955,' (actually South Seas, possibly Varua voyage), two reels, undated (1956), labeled 'Time & Life Mag.- Orig.-R-1, Edge#-A0000 to A0736,' and 'Time & Life Mag.- Orig.-R-2, Edge#-A0740 to 41422.' Each is additionally labelled '7 Rolls, Orig. Koda, W-8969'
  • 'Lester Cowan, Room 444, Chrysler Bldg,' (Unidentified boat/water scenes, possibly South Seas Varua voyage), one reel, (1956)
  • 'Great Adv.,' (possibly South Seas, Varua voyage), one reel spliced in two, (1956)
  • 'Black African Heritage,' five reels, labeled 'No. 1, OK,''No. 2, OK,''Niger-Part II,''No. 3, Show III,''Four,' (1970-71)
  • '"African Sculpture: Glorious Past," 26 April 1970, "African Sculpture: Dynamic Expression," 3 May 1970,' one videocassette, undated
The following books and periodicals have been removed from the archive and are cataloged separately with the Center's book collection:
Books and other publications:
  • 1956 Color Photography Annual. New York: Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 1956. (with Elisofon's name engraved on cover)
  • Aksharajna (G. R. Subbaramayya). Sri Ramana: The Sage of Arunagiri. Tiruvannamalai: Sri Ramanasramam, 1948
  • Carroll, John S. Photography with the Graflex "22". New York: Morgan & Lester, 1954. Inscribed to Elisofon by author: "To my very dear friend and colleague, Eliot Elisofon, who remembers when………John S. Carroll, June 1954."
  • Collier, Richard, editor. World War II: The War in the Desert. Alexandria, Va.: Time-Life Books, Inc., 1967.
  • Commence Shooting! A Navy Manual on War Photography, 1942.
  • Deschin, Jacob. 35 mm Photography. San Francisco: Camera Craft Publishing Company, 1953.
  • Elisofon, Eliot. A Week in Agata's World: Poland. London: Crowell-Collier Press, 1970.
  • ------. Color Photography. New York: The Viking Press, 1961. (with signatures of numerous Life employees)
  • ------. The Nile. New York: The Viking Press, 1964.
  • ------. The Sculpture of Africa. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958.
  • ------. Tribute to Africa: The Photography and the Collection of Eliot Elisofon. Washington, D.C.: Museum of African Art, 1974.
  • ------. Zaire: A Week in Joseph's World. New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1973.
  • Elson, Robert T. The World of Time Inc.: The Intimate History of a Publishing Enterprise, Volume Two: 1941-1960. New York: Atheneum, 1973.
  • Halsman, Philippe. The Frenchman. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1949. Inscribed to Elisofon: "For Eliot, a great photographer, with friendship and may this book give him added strength to yield to select temptations. Philippe Halsman, Xmas 1949."
  • Hedgecoe, John. John Hedgecoe's Advanced Photography. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.
  • Henry R. Luce, April 3, 1898-February 28, 1967. Time, Inc., 1967.
  • Hepburn, Katharine. The Making of "The African Queen." New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1987.
  • Horizon. vol. vii, no. 1, Winter, 1966. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Horizon. vol. vii, no. 3, Summer, 1966. New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., Inc.
  • Kellsey, Lewis L. Corrective Photography. Chicago: L. F. Deardorff & Sons, 1947. (Elisofon's name printed on cover)
  • Life Goes to War: A Picture History of World War II. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977.
  • Maloney, T. J., editor. U. S. Camera Annual 1943. New York: Duell, Sloan & Pearce, 1942.
  • Maloney, Tom, editor. U. S. Camera Annual 1950 International Edition. New York: U. S. Camera Publishing Co., 1949.
  • ------.U. S. Camera Annual 1952. New York: U. S. Camera Publishing Co., 1951.
  • Memorable Life Photographs. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1951.
  • Men and Ships: A Pictorial of the Maritime Industry, Maritime Strike Pictorial, 1936-1937.
  • Rao, M. Anant Narayan. Arunachala, or A Short History of Hill and Temple in Tiruvannamalai, privately published, 1947.
  • The Promise and Purpose of Life, Time Inc., 1961.
  • Whiting, John R. Photography is a Language. Chicago: Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., 1946. Inscribed to Elisofon by author: "For Eliot who knows the culinary language too!--John R. Whiting '47."
  • Who's Who in Foreign Correspondence 1956-1957, New York: Overseas Press Club of America, Inc
The following items have been removed from the archive and are cataloged separately with the Center's Personal Effects files:
  • One green metal negative file drawer (was one of seven)
  • One cardboard box labeled 'Contax '39 Rolls' 'Assorted' ' and containing 47 labeled film cannisters
  • One metal 35mm humidor file chest containing 56 labeled cannisters, with cardboard list of titles

Container List