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Sunday Salon
with Greg Fallis

Elliot Erwitt


He has led a peripatetic life, which seems almost traditional for a Magnum photographer. Elio Romano Erwitz was born in Paris eighty years ago this week, the only child of Russian émigrés who’d fled the 1917 Revolution a decade earlier. After his birth, the family moved to Milan, where he lived for the next ten years. When he was four years old, his parents separated under what he described as "rather acrimonious circumstances." The rise of fascism in Italy during the 1930s forced the family to temporarily re-unite and flee back to France. From there they immigrated to the United States, literally catching the last ship out of France before the government officially declared war against Nazi Germany.

On his arrival in New York City in 1939 his name was noted as Elliot Erwitt. He was eleven years old and spoke no English (though he was fluent in Russian, French and Italian). His parents again separated, with Erwitt living primarily with his father. Two years later, his father abruptly decided to move to California, taking young Elliot with him. They traveled across country by car, selling cheap wristwatches along the way to support themselves. They settled in Hollywood.

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Erwitt earned extra money after school by working in a commercial darkroom, processing and printing photographs of movie stars. He became interested in photography and bought himself an inexpensive Argus camera. After a couple of years in California, Erwitt’s father fled to New Orleans to escape alimony payments. He took his 15 year old son with him, but essentially abandoned the boy a year later.

In 1949, at the age of 21, Erwitt returned to New York City, determined to be a professional photographer. Through a combination of luck and persistence, he landed a job with a small commercial photography agency. His luck continued when he managed to meet Robert Capa, the famous photographer who helped found Magnum. Capa, perhaps because he identified with the young displaced European immigrant, helped Erwitt get a few jobs, including an assignment for the Mellon Foundation.

Just as it appeared his career was going to take off, the Korean War erupted. Erwitt was drafted. Although that was bad luck, he experienced two pieces of good luck. First, before he left for military basic training, Capa promised him a position with Magnum when he returned. Second, Erwitt found himself serving as a photographic assistant in France rather than an infantryman in Korea. He shot a lot of photographs depicting barracks life, some of which he entered in a Life Magazine competition for young photographers. He won second prize.

After his two year term of military service ended, Erwitt returned to New York and began work for Magnum. Like so many Magnum photographers, he found himself accepting a wide variety of international assignments, ranging from celebrity portraits to standard photojournalism to photographs for tourism bureaus to fashion shoots. He photographed everybody from President Richard Nixon to Che Guevara to Pope Paul VI to writer Yuko Mishima. He always traveled with at least two cameras…one for the assignment and one (usually a Leica) for his own "snaps."

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In the late 1970s he moved away from still photography and into film and video, shooting a variety of documentaries for HBO. A couple decades later, Erwitt returned to still photography. He continues to seek out new assignments…in part to pay alimony to a coterie of ex-wives. The life of a traveling photographer isn’t often conducive to stable relationships.

That’s the general course of Erwitt’s career…his history. It gives us some idea of what happened to him, when it happened, and where he was when it happened. But it gives us only minimal insight into what shaped his photography, and it tells us nothing at all about why he’s considered one of the masters of photography.

Perhaps one of the things Erwitt learned in his early life was this: do not call attention to yourself. He is a very self-effacing photographer. He treats photography as a skilled craft, not necessarily an art and sees himself in that light. He prefers to work alone, without much fuss, with minimal equipment. Once, when on assignment for the Times, he was ejected from the site of a photo-shoot by one of Annie Leibovitz’s many assistants.

As noted earlier, when on assignment Erwitt often shoots personal informal shots. These "snaps," as he calls them, have formed the basis of the many books he’s had published (and are the photos featured in this salon). Erwitt’s snaps are often charming and witty (he has a special fondness for photographs of dogs), but they can also include powerful socially conscious images. His photographs taken during segregation in the 1950s continue to spark both compassion and outrage.

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Erwitt has neither a political nor a social agenda, but his work is marked by compassion. His response to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center is very telling. Like so many photographers, he was in NYC on September 11th. Rather than grab his camera and head for the scene, Erwitt left his camera in his apartment and went immediately to donate blood.

Erwitt has been called the anti-Cartier-Bresson, the master of the indecisive moment, and a purveyor of the non-photograph. "I’ll always be an amateur photographer," he told an interviewer, then noted that the term ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin term for ‘love.’

Photography, Erwitt has said, is really very simple. "I think all photographic assignments are logical problems that have logical solutions. Technique is a myth than can be exploded by reading the literature that’s available…on the Kodak film box." He remains a traditionalist, shooting almost exclusively in black-and-white and actively denigrating digital photography and digital post-processing. "I’m almost violent about that stuff," Erwitt has said, "electronic manipulation of pictures. I think it’s an abomination. I reject it all. I mean, it’s okay for selling corn flakes or automobiles or for taking pimples out of Elizabeth Taylor’s face, but it undermines the thing that photography is about, which is about observation."

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Elliot Erwitt doesn’t consider himself an artist…and I’m inclined to agree with him. He’s more a documentarian. But he’s an artful documentarian, and his work is always wonderfully expressive. His simple "snaps" display a generosity of spirit coupled with a pragmatic approach to the scene and an intuitively graceful sense of composition.

Is Erwitt’s work a reflection of his history? It would be easy to make that argument. His life has been one of dislocation, so it’s not unreasonable to interpret his "snaps" as a search for normalcy; they do show normal moments…charming or interesting normal moments, but normal all the same. It would also be easy to interpret his photographs as the world seen through the lens of the constant alien, the person who never really has a home.

Erwitt would almost certainly dismiss any attempt to interpret his photographs. "These are just the things you see," he’s said. "You don’t have to look for anything. It’s all there."

And so it is…if you’re able to see it. Elliot Erwitt sees it.