The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
The Camera Loved Einstein
This post is second in a series that highlights some of our most popular photos on the Flickr Commons.
This photo of Einstein pictured with a group of intellectuals is one of our most popular images on the Flickr Commons. As many of our Flickr users have noted, and as a kind of illustration of Einstein’s renown, he is the only identified scientist in this group portrait of venerable scholars titled, "Portrait of Albert Einstein and Others." Einstein is possibly the most celebrated scientist, or for that matter public figure, in popular culture. He’s immediately recognizable, like Elvis and Madonna, which got me thinking: beyond his undeniable brilliance, why is Einstein’s face (rather than that of myriad other scientists) so etched in our visual consciousness?
One reason is that he simply looked the part—something clearly evident in the contrast between him and his combed colleagues in our photo. Einstein had the crazy hair, the rumpled jacket, and the slightly bewildered demeanor that now sum up the "absent-minded professor" stereotype. Einstein became world-famous in 1919 when measurements made during an eclipse confirmed his prediction of how much gravity bends light, immediately causing a press sensation. This was at a time when publicity was still deemed distasteful by most (shocking in 2009, I know!), and when Einstein allowed his portrait to be printed in a book on relativity, fellow scientists and friends were dismayed. And while he could’ve refused to give interviews or pose for photographs at this point, he did not. In fact, though Einstein publicly played coy and pooh-poohed the press, he and his wife did court the press to some degree.
The photo above was taken in 1931 while Einstein was a visiting scholar at California Institute of Technology. Headlines from his visit to California, some reminiscent of Us Weekly headlines, reveal the star power of Einstein and his own push-pull relationship with the press: "EINSTEIN PROVES HE'S PROFESSOR; Scientist Absent Mindedly Strolls Into Dining Room in Pajamas," "Dr. Einstein Gets 'Kick' Out of Press Quiz; REPORTERS QUERY WIZARD," "EINSTEIN WAVES ASIDE LURING MOVIE OFFERS," "Einsteins Guests of Charlie Chaplin At Dinner at Hollywood Home." The press liked Einstein—his forgetfulness was charming, his "twinkling brown eyes" and good sense of humor made his brilliance accessible, and they could always count on him for some quip or pithy quote. And the visibility of Einstein in the press was only magnified with the development of new media practices emerging during that time: he appeared in popular news magazines, photographs of him were circulated widely to newspapers across the country via the Associated Press, and newsreels chronicled his travels and discoveries (see a newsreel of his arrival in California here, complete with singing schoolgirls).
However, what continues to make Einstein so memorable beyond his bookish looks and legacy with the press, is that looking at Einstein is like looking at the visual symbol of "genius." This "wizard" of science, able to tease out the universe’s unseen and hidden secrets, possesses something almost magical. As my colleague Marvin mentioned, he’s the only one in our photograph not looking at the photographer, just another indication of "a guy who was in a class, and a world, all his own." And that’s what draws me, at least, back to this photo: I can’t help but imagine that by looking at Einstein, I might access a smidgen of this genius essence.