In September 1936, two months before the debut issue of LIFE magazine hit newsstands, Henry Luce and his colleagues at Time Inc. produced an 80-page “dummy” issue of the as-yet-unnamed publication. Designed and produced, in large part, to spark interest among potential advertisers, the issue was the same sort of large-format, photo-driven entity that would soon become familiar to millions of readers around the world as a weekly called LIFE.
The dummy also featured the same combination of international news, celebrity coverage, science and tech reporting and downright goofy articles (one on playing golf in a massive rainstorm stands out) that LIFE would perfect in the coming decades. And, like countless issues of the magazine down through the years, the dummy included photographs by the one and only Alfred Eisenstaedt.
Eisenstaedt pictures (some of which made their way into another Time Inc. title, Fortune magazine, in 1937) chronicle the lives—at work, at worship, at rest, at play—of sharecroppers on “the world’s largest staple cotton plantation,” near Greenville, Mississippi.
Seen all these years later, what’s perhaps most astonishing about the photos, aside from their near-uniform excellence, is how companionable, and how intimate, they feel.
Made by a man born in what is now northern Poland; a World War I veteran who served in the German Army; a dapper figure who began his career as a photographer amid the heady cultural ferment of Weimar Germany and emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1930s to escape growing Nazi oppression, Eisenstaedt’s pictures of poor, Mississippi cotton workers suggest that this worldly European Jew was able—as he was throughout his career, with virtually everyone he photographed—to make the subjects of his pictures perfectly comfortable.
Whether he was making portraits of legendary actresses, powerful politicians, famous scientists, superstar athletes or the average man, woman or child on the street, Alfred Eisenstaedt had the enviable gift of putting people at ease. (One notable exception: A booze-soaked Ernest Hemingway, who “almost killed” Eisenstaedt in Cuba in 1952.)
Here, LIFE.com presents a number of Eisenstaedt’s photos of 48-year-old sharecropper Lonnie Fair and his family, friends and neighbors, working their plots of soil on the Delta & Pine Land Co. plantation in Scott, Miss., in the midst of the Great Depression. (“Lonnie Fair,” Fortune reported in its March 1937 issue, “is a paragon of good fortune, as U.S. sharecroppers go. Last year he got $1,001.10 from D.P.L.: credit–$482.76, cash–$518.34.”)
There is poverty in these pictures, and, to a degree that might be shocking to those unfamiliar with the post-Civil War plantation business, there is exploitation, as well. No photojournalist worth his or her salt—least of all Alfred Eisenstaedt—would romanticize or otherwise trivialize the harshness of a sharecropper’s life.
But through Eisenstaedt’s lens, and through the man’s capacity for seeing things both clearly, and empathetically, the far deeper reaction most of us will experience after spending time with his photos is a probably one part wonderment, and three parts gratitude.
After all, would could fail to be thankful that a photographer of Eisenstaedt’s talent and compassion was dispatched to chronicle—and, in a real sense, to immortalize—this era, and these lives?
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.