Elliot Erwitt Snaps
by Simon James
A tiny dog in an ill fitting sweater stands in the left half of the frame next to a woman's feet, clad in rather better fitting, elegant for their day, shoes. The picture takes me back to one of my first lessons at photography night school when our lecturer explained about the different ways in which the camera can present the world. A dustbin liner we were told, to keep our clothes clean while we lay on the ground, would make an inexpensive and effective addition to our kit. And yet the photograph I'm now looking at could only be an Elliott Erwitt. The irony is that it turns out to have been made nearly 50 years ago in 1946 on his first photography trip to New York.
Elliott Erwitt was born in Paris to Russian parents. He moved to the United States in 1939 when he was 11 years old. He spoke three languages but no English. He says, "We spent our first year in New York City. Then after a family disagreement, my father, who I loved very much, sort of kidnapped me and took me to California.
"My first contact with photography came at about the age of 13 when I bought a four x five glass plate camera. Photography became a real interest when I was on my own at 15 and needed to earn some money to live. I did pictures of neighbors, school events, people' s pets: anything that anybody would pay for. From then I graduated to a Rolleiflex and eventually to an old Leica.
"At that time New York was the center of the world or at least the center of America for anything to do with photography, magazines, the visual arts, museums. It seemed the logical place to go to build a life in photography. I met Ste-ichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker. These were the three people who helped me.
"My first commercial job was for Roy Stryker who at that time was making a library for Standard Oil Company and from there he went to Pittsburgh. This was in 1951 just before I was drafted into the army. I went with him and two or three other photographers and worked in Pittsburgh for a few months.
"When I went into the army I applied for the signal corps and photography, but apparently didn't qualify for that. I qualified for anti-aircraft gunnery. Luckily for me the positions were closed. My second specialty was the darkroom. After basic training, I was assigned to a darkroom, and I was sent off to Europe rather than Korea. First I went to Germany which was not to my liking, and then I was assigned to France, first in Verdun which was not much better and then in Orleans, which was terrific with frequent visits to Paris. I had a grand old time in the army.
"While I was in the army I'd won second place in a contest for Life magazine. When I got out I also tried to work for Lifemagazine and succeeded to a certain small degree. However, there was a kind of arrogance that I always disliked at Lifemagazine. Anyway I was just starting out and tried to work for them or for anybody that would hire me. I'd also kept in touch with Capa, who lived in Paris most of the time. I was in touch with Magnum and I was promised to be taken in as a member when I left the service, which they did. At the time Magnum was based in Paris but had a small office in New York. My first job for the agency was Bermuda and was published in Look magazine. Because of Magnum and because of the attitude that I had, I was always able to retain copyright on my material and the stuff that I shot then still appears in my books now. Does your work belong to the magazine or hiring authority or are they buying the use of it? Of course they're buying the use of it. This has been our eternal fight in the past and it is now even more, with the big companies buying everything but caring very little about pictures and depriving people of a their potential livelihood."
When asked about the huge breadth of his practice, Erwitt comments, "I always thought that photography was a profession. If photography is a profession you've got to be able to do anything that is required of you: that's what being professional means. I think all this compartmentalization is a lot of bullshit. The kind of idiocy where people might hire you to do a close up of somebody because you've done a close up of somebody before is rampant in our business. I always say that a professional is a professional; he or she can do anything. So that's one side of my photographic existence and there's the amateur side. Professionally I've done everything, whether it's fashion, food architecture, under water photography, you name it, because I've been around a long time and I don't think there's any great mystery to solving professional problems. But I've kept my amateur standing quite separate from the beginning. It's my hobby. There I can do whatever I like."
Erwitt's notion of his personal work as his hobby seems in some ways to give clues as to the broader individual. His camera is constantly with him, as is evidenced in his massive new book Snaps, although there is very much more to his hobby than immediately meets the eye. With regard to Snaps Erwitt himself is very keen to acknowledge the contribution of his designer, London-based Stuart Smith, who he describes as a "charming, delightful and intelligent person and I'd really like him to know how much I appreciate his work."
"When thinking about this book I went through my contact sheets and made about 3,000 prints. Rather than printing myself these days I tend to supervise. However, I've always had a darkroom and regard it as very important. It is something of a security blanket to me. Stuart came over to New York and looked through the prints. He and I made selections and that's how the book got put together. There isn't really an idea of chronology or anything — for the most part he made the combinations."
Despite his denials, Snaps very definitely provides an insight into the breadth of Erwitt's career. In the field of portraiture for example, over the space of a few pages, we find Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in the midst of an argument in Moscow; Marilyn Monroe on the set of The Misfits; Billy Graham proclaiming his notion of the truth in New York; and Che Guevara in Tehran. Again in New York, Andy Warhol is pictured in the back of a limousine, while immediately below, this time in Tokyo, the author Yukio Mishi-ma contemplates a samurai sword. Mishima was later to commit hari kiri with the exact same sort of weapon. Erwitt, however, is equally happy to address the frivolous or absurd, nudist colonies also feature. In one, a naked bridal party unselfconsciously ties the knot, while in East Hampton six naked artists draw a fully clothed model. Integrity matters to Erwitt, and he confesses he actually set the last shot up.
Erwitt said, "I think it's for other people to judge whether there's any significance in the pictures or not. I just react to certain things. I don't think about it too much. I think I just take pictures." Ironically this statement provides a mostapposite way into the pictures for it seems to me that his camera describes the wanderings of the mind. He may indeed not think too much; but his gift is to clearly describe in his pictures what he was thinking about when he pushed the button. Erwitt's Snaps offer a rare glimpse into a life spent in picture making. He's articulate, piercing in his observations, intolerant of hypocrisy and detests arrogance. Cognizant, I'm certain, of the power of satyr he tempers the most critical or damning edge of his imagery with his ever present wit.
And his tip for the budding photographer? After a lifetime in photography, much of it spent in the company of man's best friend; self-effacing to the last Erwitt, alleged to be Magnum's highest earning photographer, says, "You often get good pictures when you bark at dogs!"