Elliott Erwitt, really Elio Romano Erwitt, (born 26 July 1928) is an American advertising and documentary photographer known for his black and white candid shots of ironic and absurd situations within everyday settings— a master of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”.
Erwitt was born in Paris, France, to Jewish-Russian immigrant parents, who soon moved to Italy. In 1939, when he was ten, his family immigrated to the United States. He studied photography and filmmaking at Los Angeles City College and the New School for Social Research, finishing his education in 1950. In 1951 he was drafted into the Army, and decommissioned in 1953.
Erwitt served as a photographer’s assistant in the 1950s in the United States Army while stationed in France and Germany. He was influenced by meeting the famous photographers Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker. Stryker, the former Director of the Farm Security Administration’s photography department, hired Erwitt to work on a photography project for the Standard Oil Company. He then began a freelance photographer career and produced work for Collier’s, Look, Life and Holiday. Erwitt was invited to become a member of Magnum Photos by the founder Robert Capa.
One of the subjects Erwitt has frequently photographed in his career is dogs: they have been the subject of four of his books, Son of Bitch (1974), Dog Dogs (1998), Woof (2005), and Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs (2008).
Erwitt has created an alter ego, the beret-wearing and pretentious “André S. Solidor” (which abbreviates to “ass”) — “a contemporary artist, from one of the French colonies in the Caribbean, I forget which one” — in order to “satirise the kooky excesses of contemporary photography.” His work was published in a book, The Art of André S. Solidor (2009), and exhibited in 2011 at the Paul Smith Gallery in London.
Erwitt was awarded the Royal Photographic Society’s Centenary Medal and an honorary fellowship (HonFRPS) in 2002 in recognition of a sustained, significant contribution to the art of photography. and the International Center for Photography’s Infinity Award, Lifetime Achievement category, in 2011.
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Elliot attended Hollywood High in 1943-45 and it was here that he fell in love with photography. He bought a chrome-plated Argos camera and was so hooked that he converted his laundry room into a dark room. He later upgraded to a $200 Rolleiflex, raising the funds by engraving Boris’s watches.
He initially took photographs of people around him – in his neighbourhood, pedestrians, surfers and so on. He split his time though, taking the photographs he really loved to take and making money from photography – shooting weddings as well as printing pictures of film stars. He later studied photography in Los Angeles City College and film in the New School for Social Research in New York.
Erwitt did many commercial assignments in Sarro Studio and shortly after, he met Robert Capa, who helped the young photographer establish more contacts, and led to an assignment in Pittsburgh for the Mellon Foundation – one of his first big photo-essays.
With the outbreak of the Korean War, Erwitt was enlisted which put a hold in his career. He was assigned as a photographer to a unit based in France. While the war carried on and soldiers waited, he photographed soliders lounging around, trying to full time. He took photographs of barrack life and entered into a competition by Life Magazine under the title “Bed and Boredom” – winning second prize and cash award of $2.500.
In 1953, he joined Magnum Photos and worked as a freelance photographer for Collier’s, Look, Life, Holiday and many other magazines. In the late 1960s, he served as Magnum’s president for three years. He then turned to film producing a series of documentaries as well as comedy films for Home Box Office (HBO).
Erwitt is renowned for his wit and humour that he tries to bring into his photographs. He is best known as a documentary photographer who specialized in capturing unique and absurd moments of everyday life. His infamous dog photographs have been the subject of four of his books as well as renowned photographs of celebrities and political life.
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He is reflecting on his long and illustrious career, during which he has photographed some of the most famous faces and events from the 1950s onwards, among them Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac, John F Kennedy’s funeral, numerous Hollywood film sets, including On the Waterfront and The Misfits, as well as ordinary Joes – and, of course, dogs, the subject of four of his books. Little wonder he is due to receive the Outstanding Contribution to Photography prize at the Sony World Photography Awards on 23 April.
“His images look easy,” says Astrid Merget Motsenigos, creative director of the World Photography Organisation. “But he is the only one who captures people in exactly the right moment.” Take his shot of Richard Nixon prodding the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in the chest as they toured the model American kitchen at the 1959 National American Exhibition in Moscow, at the height of the Cold War. It symbolised Nixon’s pugilistic bearing for the rest of his career. Then there is Jacqueline Kennedy’s grief-stricken face, emphasised through her sheer black veil as her husband is about to be buried. “I captured many moments but I chose this one as it was the most evocative. It was the saddest occasion I’ve ever been to,” Erwitt says.
“I’ve been lucky,” says Erwitt. “It’s nothing you can plan on. It just happens. Taking pictures [whether of personalities or of everyday people] is just noticing things that are significant, that look like a picture – and snapping,” he says. “It’s the photograph that matters.” A case in point is his perfectly framed image of a couple kissing, seen through a rear-view mirror. It was part of a Life magazine story about love, and was one of hundreds taken. “I didn’t see this picture until 25 years after I took it. And it’s turned out to be one of my most popular pictures.”
But there is much more to his work. Getting close to people is his forte – even with the most guarded subjects. Take Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, with whom Erwitt spent a week, following them around Havana at the height of the US/Cuban standoff in 1964. He instantly bonded with Castro and gently broke through Guevara’s reserve, and the resulting images remain the rawest, most intimate footage of these tough personalities. “Castro was like a cowboy, kissing babies, throwing baseballs and being a regular citizen. I thought he was probably playing for the camera.” Guevara was serious, dour and didn’t like being photographed. “He gave me a box of cigars,” Erwitt recalls.
“Every situation has its own dynamics,” says Erwitt. “People let me enter their lives because they trust me and I seem reasonable.” Even Monroe, whom he describes as visibly neurotic, allowed him to snap her in a bathrobe in her dressing room between scenes for Some Like It Hot. The resulting images show Monroe at her most natural, relaxed yet ethereal. “She had a good instinct for people who would not abuse the privilege [of being around her] and a good sense of what worked in a photograph. She was very good-looking but better-looking in pictures than in person,” he says.
Erwitt’s canny ability to blend into the background landed him an exclusive gig, photographing Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball at New York’s Plaza Hotel, for Vogue magazine. The ball, which took place in 1966, was attended by a who’s who of the Sixties. “It was highly controlled as Capote didn’t want anyone to disrupt it,” he says. Guests such as Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, whom he pictured working the room in their black and white masks, and Candice Bergen, whom he shot dancing, were unaware of his presence. “I was like a guest, snapping away without a flash and without making a fuss,” he says.
Nowadays, images such as Erwitt’s would be harder to get. “Life was simpler with less goons around to protect people,” he says. Yet Erwitt has chutzpah in spades. In 1957 he slipped past six layers of heavy security in Red Square, Moscow, to become the only Western journalist to capture the 40th anniversary celebrations of the October Revolution.
Interestingly, his greatest inspirations are Modigliani’s poetic paintings and the Italian Neorealist movies of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and others. “[The style’s] not chichi, but real and direct, which I hope I’ve manifested in my photos,” he says. The latest award suggests that he has.