On October 30, 1950, Life magazine carried what is arguably the most widely seen and possibly the best photograph ever made at the University of Michigan. It shows an exuberant drum major—head thrust back, right leg thrust forward at an impossible angle—marching from right to left across a close-cut field. Seven children bounce along behind him in ragged single-file, their own heads thrown back in imitation. In the background, four stately trees seem to march in a procession of their own.
The photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1898-1995), the great Time-Life photographer who specialized in capturing spontaneous images that told an entire story, the best-known example being a sailor’s passionate embrace of a nurse in Times Square on V-J Day in 1945.
As he recalled it later, Eisenstaedt already that week had shot many pictures of “the usual things: the formations, the rehearsing, and so on.” He was wandering on the athletic campus when he caught sight of the drum major—it was Dick Smith—rehearsing all alone. Kids were playing nearby, and “they saw him, too,” Eisenstaedt said, “and all of a sudden they ran out and began to mimic him. It happened so quickly that I barely had time to focus.”
At least two superb photographs of the drum major and the children resulted. Both have been reprinted, but only the one that appeared in Life became famous. William D. Revelli, director of U-M bands from 1935 to 1971, never forgot the coverage. “I think that for our marching band,” he told an interviewer more than 30 years later, “that article was the greatest thing that ever happened.”
The photography critic David Friend, a veteran editor at Life and Vanity Fair, has noted that while Eisenstaedt took well-known pictures of celebrities from Winston Churchill to Jacqueline Kennedy, his best works, like those of Frank Capra on film and Norman Rockwell in portraiture, were “the ones that distilled everyday life to its essential joie de vivre.” They captured “the ebullient moment.” The image of the strutting drum major and the kids, Friend said, was Eisenstaedt’s “ode to joy.”
Source: James Tobin, “Ode to Joy”, Michigan Today, February 10, 2010.