“Photography has little to do with the things you see and everything to do with the way you see them,” Elliott Erwitt once said.
Erwitt, who was one of the most celebrated photographers of the 20th century, has died on November 30 at the age of 95. In a career spanning more than 70 years, his witty, gentle and beautifully observed images beguiled generations of admirers and propelled him to become one of the best known – and well paid – photographers of the 20th century.
Born Elio Romano Erwitz in in Paris in 1925 to Jewish-Russian parents, he migrated with his family to the US in 1939 to escape the fascism spreading across Europe as war broke out.
In 1953, legendary war photographer Robert Capa invited Erwitt to join Magnum. It was the world’s first photo agency, founded in 1947 by four European photographers including Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour.
The agency popularised the term “photojournalism” and produced work to satisfy the insatiable demand for images produced on small, handheld cameras like the 35mm Leica. As a Magnum photographer Erwitt went on to take pictures for LIFE magazine and many other publications during that golden era of illustrated journals.
Working with the greats
Capa and Cartier-Bresson had a profound influence on the young Erwitt. Capa redefined war photography by following his own guiding principle that “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.
Cartier-Bresson influenced Erwitt though his pursuit of geometric compositional methods and exploration of “the decisive moment”: the concept of the critical moment to press the shutter. This is seen in one of his most famous photographs, Behind the Gare St Lazare (1932), capturing a stocky man leaping over a large puddle, exquisitely mirrored by his reflection.
Erwitt’s work straddled commercial photography, photojournalism and personal work that he made on his way to and from the studio. He said that distinctions between commercial and personal work were less important than the similarities. He employed techniques such as bold graphic composition, humorous and ironic juxtapositions and storytelling through use of the “decisive moment”.
Lucky breaks and a good eye
It was in 1959, while working for Westinghouse Refrigerators at a trade fair in Moscow, that Erwitt had the opportunity to take his world-famous photograph of then US vice-president Richard Nixon jabbing a finger into the chest of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
In a single moment, Erwitt created an image that symbolised the tensions between Russia and the US – and it was published all over the world. To an American audience it represented the US standing up to Soviet aggression. For audiences in the Soviet Union it was a symbol of American intimidation.
Like French humanist photographer Robert Doisneau, Erwitt was not beyond employing an element of staging in his personal pictures. This becomes evident when comparing Doisneau’s picture The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville (1950) and Erwitt’s California Kiss (1956).
Both images have become an indelible part of the visual language of 20th century photography and arguably, the wider culture, through print sales, postcards and publication.
It is this element of organised visual storytelling, combined with his undoubted skill with the camera that resulted in Erwitt creating such well known and celebrated images. He must also have been keenly aware of the commercial possibilities when choosing his subjects.
He photographed dogs and their owners frequently, making five very popular books on the subject, saying: “I take a lot of pictures of dogs because I like dogs, because they don’t object to being photographed, and because they don’t ask for prints.”
His photographs have become much more widely known and valued than some of his contemporaries. Larry Fink, another American photographer who died five days before Erwitt, for example, received far fewer column inches in praise of his grittier, social documentary pictures.
Erwitt was both a gifted visual storyteller and hugely successful commercially. He reached audiences beyond the illustrated magazines, the art world and the photojournalism of newspapers. His work – if not necessarily his name – became known to the general public in the US and beyond, a feat not achieved by his contemporaries William Klein, Robert Frank or even the recently discovered Vivian Maier.
The breadth and financial success of Erwitt’s work across several genres remains an inspiration to the generation of photographers who have followed. British photographer Martin Parr, for example, like Erwitt uses humour, juxtaposition and a very identifiable style to great effect. He is also a member and, like Erwitt, a former president of Magnum.
Other British photographers who might be said to owe a debt of gratitude to him would be Matt Stuart, who has published several books of his own street photography and Dougie Wallace, who has made two successful books with dogs as the subject.
In many ways, it would be impossible to repeat the success of Elliott Erwitt. His career could only have flourished in post-war New York. He helped to define what the city’s creative culture was and would be in the aftermath of the second world war.
The idea of “humanist photography” was readily consumed by a war-weary generation. The addition of humour and uncontroversial subject matter found a ready audience who were captivated by his superlative and often humourous photographic storytelling techniques.
Elliott Erwitt’s deeply human images have endured over decades and still find favour with photographers and the public alike today – because we all recognise and enjoy a virtuoso performance when we see one.
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Graeme Oxby does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.