Sandra Eisert · 2018
As a high school student in Washington County, Indiana, Sandra Eisert planned to attend Purdue University, where her father had studied, to become a high school math teacher. Then she saw Purdue’s flat campus, virtually treeless at the time. Accustomed to navigating winding roads and hills in her beloved Southern Indiana, “I knew I would just die there,” she said of West Lafayette. Her dad’s advice: “It’s your life, you have to live it.”
In choosing liberal arts-focused Indiana University Eisert abandoned plans for a math degree. “Indecision” became her new major — until a chance class and a visionary professor set her on a course that had a lasting impact on journalism, particularly picture editing, as she built a resume filled with a multitude of firsts. She was at the forefront of leading women into “this once all-male domain,” said Hall of Fame member J. Bruce Baumann.
Eisert became the first woman named newspaper picture editor when the Louisville Courier Journal & Times hired her right out of college. For her work there, Eisert earned the National Press Photographers Association’s Newspaper Picture Editor of the Year portfolio competition award.
She was named the first-ever White House picture editor under President Gerald Ford. She then became the first woman picture editor of the Washington Post, where she expanded photographic coverage nationally. When Eisert joined the Associated Press’ Washington Bureau, she ran the picture network for the Southern United States. She later returned to the White House staff to edit pictures for two additional presidents — more than any other editor — and played a key role in producing a book about a fourth.
A move to California took her to the San Jose Mercury News, where she became design director, and to WEST magazine as its art director. She also contributed to the editing, design or strategy of more than 90 books.
When few journalists were thinking digitally, Eisert took a step outside print to become the founding journalist and a designer of MSNBC.com, where she held the titles of senior designer and director of graphics. Her design set the standard for online news with the first easy-to-download pictures, the first interactive graphic and video reporting, and the first online breaking news projects. “It was a truly internet-changing user interface,” she said. She later led the creation of the Department of Defense’s Public Web program.
Eisert considers her most important contribution to journalism to have been her work creating and enforcing barrier-breaking diversity standards as the first person other than a white male on the national Accrediting Council on Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, where she served 20 years. “I now see ethnic bylines in publications and faces on TV from all races and both sexes and I am proud because there are role models and opportunities. Diversity makes journalism and society stronger,” she said.
Baumann, an award-winning editor and photographer, said Eisert “played a major role in shattering the proverbial glass ceiling, even before we knew there was a glass ceiling. She has been a role model for hundreds, maybe thousands, of women entering the world of visual journalism.”
David Hume Kennerly, Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer and the White House personal photographer to President Ford, calls her “a pioneer in the world of journalism and one of the world’s best and most influential picture editors.”
Eisert’s and Kennerly’s collaboration “took the photo staff from being a public relations arm of the press office to independent everyday documentation of the presidency,” said Carolyn Lee, a retired assistant managing editor of the New York Times, who worked with Eisert in Louisville. It had been in Louisville that Eisert was driven toward the need to document. While creating a special section on President Richard Nixon’s resignation, she could find no candid, informal pictures of him. “I understood that what we now call ‘transparency’ was essential to putting the fractionated country back together again,” Eisert recalls. When she got to the White House, “I did not care whether people liked Ford or not; all I cared was that they felt they accurately knew him.”
In retrospect, Eisert credits the hills of Southern Indiana and the constant quest to see what lay beyond each bend for her persistence, curiosity and desire to find new ways throughout her career. “I’d be a different person if I weren’t from Southern Indiana. I could not have been from either coast, not from Kansas and not even from Northern Indiana,” she said. “You always have to think about what’s around every corner, every turn; anticipate the unseen.”
Eisert was born in Harrison County, the daughter of Norma and Erwin Eisert. She went to school in Washington County, where her father taught high school. Eisert credits her late father with her worldview and indifference to obstacles. Erwin, a pilot in World War II, taught vocational agriculture and was a radio farm broadcaster. Eisert often was a navigator on her father’s private plane flights and supported his passion to document Southern Indiana in aerial photographs. She says her mother, “a real dynamo,” who still lives in Washington County, is her role model. She continues to serve on the town’s Planning Commission, its Tree Board and its Prison Board, and she remains active with the Salem Presbyterian Church and Woman’s Study Club. Eisert’s brother, Bruce, a father of four and a computer-programming specialist, died in 2016.
Eisert recalls how her career began while she studied in the introductory honors program at Indiana University. She wanted to add three extra credit hours to her tight summer schedule, and mass communications fit. Her professor, Ron Farrar, encouraged her to write for the Indiana Daily Student. A photography class was required to major in journalism and “that class changed my life,” she said. “The things you could quickly and eloquently say with photography amazed me.”
Although Eisert had a hard time breaking into journalism as a female photographer, legendary professor Will Counts encouraged her to pursue picture editing: “This is going to be a field; you need to do it.”
After graduation, she faced the first of many roadblocks when her application for a summer internship at a small-town Hoosier newspaper was denied. She responded by applying to the National Geographic and becoming its first woman visual intern. The following semester, she wanted to see how the job of picture editor worked at a metro newspaper, so she spent a day observing at the Louisville Courier Journal & Times. On the visit she made suggestions and asked so many good questions, she was hired on the spot.
In addition to the firsts in photojournalism, Eisert has received many awards, including two distinguished alumna awards from IU. She shares the San Jose Mercury News’ Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, highlighted by a special section she designed. She was the first woman given the National Press Photographers Association’s Joseph Costa Award for outstanding leadership, 39 years after its inception. She has taught journalism at three universities and continues to seek new horizons as a founder of a healthcare software startup. “Once you round the curve, there’s always something interesting and new,” she says.
To Eisert, “Photojournalism can help us understand each other. It can break down stereotypes. It can speak to us across time and freeze history to be examined when we can bring new eyes to it.”
By Linda Negro