Elliott Erwitt?s observant, insightful and often humorous images make him a unique figure in world photography, writes David Clark
©magnum. New York City, 2000. ‘Dogs have human qualities, and i think my pictures have anthropomorphic appeal,’ says Erwitt
At the age of 81, Elliott Erwitt is one of the world?s most famous photographers and one who has produced a significant body of personal work while maintaining a successful commercial career. He?s best known for his use of irony and his seemingly limitless supply of visual puns and humorous juxtapositions, though he?s equally accomplished at producing touching and even sombre images.
Despite his achievements in photography, Erwitt refuses to take either himself or his profession too seriously. ?I studied photography by reading the instructions on a box of film,? he comments in an interview on the Magnum website. ?You don?t study photography, you do it. Eventually, you develop certain skills? Photography is not brain surgery. It?s fairly simple.?
However, although Erwitt makes his work look effortless, his images require a rare combination of skills. They include the ability to instinctively visualise and capture an insightful image and a sharp sense of timing.
He was born Elio Romano Ervitz in France to Russian-Jewish parents and brought up in Italy, but in 1938 the threat of fascism drove his family to emigrate to the United States. They initially lived in New York but he moved to Los Angeles with his father (who had separated from his wife) two years later. Soon afterwards, Elio Ervitz changed his name to the less conspicuous Elliott Erwitt.
Erwitt believes these early experiences of living in different countries were crucial in determining his future character and career. ?Immigrants are different,? he wrote in the introduction to his book Personal Exposures. ?If you?ve had to change countries and languages a number of times, as I have, you get toughened up. You can take a lot of things that might cave in people who haven?t had those experiences.?
The feeling of being an outsider made Erwitt, in his words, ?a dedicated people watcher?, and he naturally gravitated towards photography. ?Shyness helped make me a photographer,? Erwitt continues. ?In high school I discovered that a camera gets you into situations where you don?t really belong. Then it was proms; now, it?s the White House or the back rooms of the Kremlin.?
While still at high school in Hollywood, Erwitt began working in a commercial darkroom, printing images of movie stars, then in1944 studied photography at Los Angeles City College. Afterwards he started earning money as a photographer, mainly shooting weddings and other family events.
In the late 1940s, while looking for work in New York, he met key figures in photography that had a decisive impact on his career. One was Edward Steichen, at that time Director of the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Steichen was impressed by Erwitt?s work and arranged his first commercial shoot. He also met Roy Stryker, the former head of the Farm Security Administration?s information division, who later hired Erwitt to work as a documentary photographer for the Standard Oil Company.
Another photographer he met at this time was Robert Capa, who had recently set up the Magnum agency. A year or so later, while doing his US military service in Paris, Erwitt again met up with Capa and showed him some of his work. This meeting resulted in Erwitt being invited to join Magnum in 1953, immediately after completing his two years in the army.
Soon afterwards he began working for magazines including Life, Look and Holiday. Since then, Erwitt has worked as a freelance news, commercial and advertising photographer and some of his most famous images have been shot while on assignment. They include a picture of Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev having a heated argument in Moscow in 1959, an emotional Jackie Kennedy at John F Kennedy?s funeral in 1963 and Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits
However, it?s mainly Erwitt?s huge portfolio of personal work ? pictures he refers to as his ?snaps? ? that have made him a popular and influential figure in photography. He has shot these images in a wide range of locations, but has found museums, beaches and nudist colonies particularly fertile ground.
In the 1970s and ?80s, Erwitt combined his career as a photographer with his work as a film director and producer, but since the 1990s he has concentrated entirely on photography. He says he keeps working so he can finance ?expensive overheads and alimony payments? (he has been married four times) but also because he simply enjoys doing it.Perhaps Erwitt?s most famous subjects ? and the ones by which he will be best remembered ? are dogs. His first published dog picture was shot in 1946 and he has continued expanding this humorous and entertaining collection ever since.
?The dog pictures work on two levels,? he says in Personal Exposures ?Dogs are simply funny when you catch them in certain situations, so some people like my pictures just because they like dogs. But dogs have human qualities, and I think my pictures have an anthropomorphic appeal. Essentially, they have nothing to do with dogs. I mean, what I hope they?re about is the human condition. But people can take them as they like. If somebody likes what I do on any level, that?s fine with me.?
- 1928 Born on 26 July in Paris and named Elio Romano Ervitz
- 1939 Emigrates to the United States with his family and changes his name to Elliott Erwitt
- 1944-45 Studies photography at Los Angeles City College
- 1948-50 Studies film at the New School for Social Research
- 1951 Drafted into the US Army for two years, where he serves as a photographic assistant in the Signal Corps
- 1953 Invited to join the Magnum Photos agency by founder member Robert Capa
- 1963 Shoots his famous photograph of Jackie Kennedy at JFK?s funeral
- 1968 Serves as President of Magnum for three years
- 1971 Directs his first documentary film, Beauty Knows No Pain
- 1980s Produces 18 comedy films for US TV company HBO
- 1990s Devotes his time to commercial, industrial and personal photography projects
Collections of Erwitt?s work currently available include Personal Exposures (Norton, 1988) and the more compact Elliott Erwitt Photofile (Thames & Hudson, 2007). Books concentrating on particular aspects of his work include Elliott Erwitt?s Dogs (teNeues, 2008) and Museum Watching (Phaidon, 1999).
Erwitt?s official website is www.elliotterwitt.com, which includes biographical material and a selection of his personal work, plus his advertising, fashion and corporate photography. There are more pictures on the Magnum website, www.magnumphotos.com, together with an informative audio interview (http://inmotion.magnumphotos.com/essay/personal-best).