Legends of Photography #06: Elliott Erwitt
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Elliott Erwitt was born on 26 of July in 1928 in Paris. At the age of ten he and his family immigrated to America, where he carried out his studies on the art of photography. During his carrier, he met and got influenced by important photographers such as Erwitt Steichen and Robert Capa, while in one of his interviews he admitted to being an eager fan of Bresson. Nevertheless, this time I am not going to discuss similarities among various photographers, but I will try to convey what makes Elliott Erwitt's photographic work so special, in a time where it could potentially stay hidden in the shadow of many other 'legends' of photography.
During his photographic carrier Erwitt has, among others, captured on his film various celebrities of modern history. Some of them are Fidel Castro, Che Guevara in Cuba, Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon and Αrnold Schwarzenegger.
Strange as it may seem though, it seems that they are not the main protagonists of his work. There is point here where we can acknowledge evidence of his singularity: while Erwitt had the chance to become famous by just being a privileged observer capturing celebrities alone, he actually chose certain, more peculiar protagonists to constitute the main subject in his works.
Each photographer have the potential to express his personal emotions through photography. Some choose a kind of photographic oblivion, living inside a concurrent photographic world, while others use photography as a frame employed with structure, aesthetics and rules. We have also met photographers who attempt to entrap our eyes with their work, by utilising its content as a bate for our curiosity. Erwitt possesses a basic characteristic which distinguishes him from other photographers – and that is his sense of humour. It was at this point that his photographic genius came across our 'little friends' that vitalized his work.
‘’The dog pictures work on two levels. 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, I hope what they’re about is the human condition. But people can take them as they like.’’
Nevertheless, we must not think of Erwitt as a photographer who chooses his subjects unilaterally, since in the majority of his work this is not the case.
‘’I don’t start out with any specific interests, I just react to what I see. I don’t know that I set out to take pictures of dogs; I have a lot of pictures of people and quite a few of cats. But dogs seem to be more sympathetic.’’
On the other hand, there were more than a few times that his “little friends” were not witnesses of a photographic event and he would not hesitate to find another way to express his sense of humour.
‘’Well, I’m not a serious photographer like most of my colleagues. That is to say, I’m serious about not being serious.’’
However, the secret of Erwitt ’s success in photography is not just the sense of humor which he could embed in a photograph. Besides, let us not forget that it is extremely difficult to articulate an idea in a desired way, let alone when it is filtered by our photographic lens. Erwitt would comfort us:
‘’Luck is always important and of course it depends on what it is that you do. If you are a war photographer, luck is really very important because you might get killed. When you are a studio photographer, it is of course a different kind of luck. These questions are quite subjective’’
In any case, we should not rest on the idea that everything is a matter of chance. A photographer must always go after a finer moment.
‘’The most interesting one is the one that is the next one, I hope. Which is going to take place in Scotland in the months of June and August. I know it’s going to be the best one, even though I haven’t done it yet... I have a few pictures that I like, but I hope I haven’t taken my favorite pictures yet.’’
And of course, when a single photograph was not enough to convey his conception, Erwitt took more shots, in a way that each photo appeared as a continuation of a previous one, composing a photographic puzzle which fully rendered the picture he had in front of him. To this trick he attributes the term ‘photo sequence’.
Generally, one can say that photography for Erwitt carries only the rules that you alone determine. Consequently, the important thing is to what extent you succeed to express whatever you wished to express and not to what degree you follow with photographic norms.
In one of his interviews he stated:
Interviewer: ‘’Do you remember a point when your personal style had developed enough for you to stop trying to emulate your photographic heroes?’’
Erwitt: ‘’I am not conscious of a personal style of mine. I just like to take pictures. My ‘visual’ heroes are mostly painters. But I do not paint.’’
Interviewer: ‘’Despite having your own very distinctive style, there is nevertheless a great feel of mid twentieth century ‘America’ in your photography, even if the subject is elsewhere. They fit in with Robert Frank, Bruce Davidson, Lee Friedlander et al, even Harry Callahan – did you ever feel yourself stylistically aligned with your contemporaries?"
Erwitt: ’’Stylistically aligned’ is the least of my concerns. Of the people you mention, I like much of their work, and some I don’t. Form and content is what counts for me."
Quite often though, Erwitt disclosed through his work, his personal sensitivities. And that is a fact that evinces that when he photographed he expressed aspects of his personality.
‘’To me, photography is an art of observation. It's about finding something interesting in an ordinary place... I've found it has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.’’
Even at the age of seventy years old, Erwitt did not seize to take photographs, creating a body of work which among others illustrates his idiosyncratic and sarcastic character. For Erwitt , the art of photography has to do with the ability to negate certain rules instead of following them faithfully. He never felt as 'professional' photographer∙ he just wanted to capture things or/and moments that made him feel happy. And if a young photographer would like to ask for Erwitt's advice on how to become better, then he would receive a wise respond:
‘’Be sure to take the lens cap off before photographing’’.
Elliott Erwitt's official site
Conrad, Peter, "Elliott Erwitt's law of intended consequences", The Observer, 20 February 2011
Moakley, Paul. "Elliott Erwitt's Very Own Personal Best"
"New Orleans: Elliott Erwitt, Black & White and Kolor"
NY Times article about the exhibition May to August at the ICP, New York City
Callahan, Sean, Elliott Erwitt: The Private Experience. (In the series "Masters of Contemporary Photography") Los Angeles: Petersen, 1974.
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