“The whole point of taking pictures is so that you don’t have to explain things with words.” -Elliott Erwitt
Elliott Erwitt is a keen observer of human humor. His photographs are endearing, heartwarming and oftentimes smile or even laugh worthy.
Elliott Erwitt served in the U.S. Army as a photographer’s assistant in France and Germany during the 1950s. There, he met other photographers who had a great influence on him, Edward Steichen, Robert Capa and Roy Stryker among them. Stryker had run the Farm Security Administration’s photography department from 1937 through 1944. He hired Erwitt to build a photographic library for Standard Oil. Erwitt went on to be a freelance photographer where he did work for Collier’s, Look, Holiday and Life magazines. Robert Capa invited him to join the Magnum Photos agency. Erwitt became the agency’s president in 1966.
The ’70s saw Erwitt turn to film, directing several documentaries including “Arthur Penn: The Director,” “Beauty Knows No Pain” and “Beautiful Baby, Beautiful.” In the ’80s he did 18 comedy films for HBO.
Dogs and books
Elliott Erwitt’s keen sense of irony, humor and love of puns along with his being a skilled observer with a fascination for photographing dogs led to the publication of five books of canine photos.
- “Son of Bitch” (1974)
- “To the Dogs” (1992)
- “Dog Dogs” (1998)
- “Woof” (2005)
- “Elliott Erwitt’s Dogs” (2008)
Along with numerous other books, one that stands out as a beacon to Erwitt’s sense of fun, is 2010’s “The Art of Andre S. Solidor.” Solidor is Erwitt’s whimsical alter-ego whose initials purposely spell A.S.S. His most current book was published in 2017: “Pittsburgh 1950.” The book contains photos Erwitt made in 1950 when he was 22 years old. It was a commission from Roy Stryker. Erwitt documents Pittsburgh’s transition from industry into a modern metropolis. One of the photos is disturbing to say the least. It shows a young boy smiling at the camera while holding a toy pistol to his right temple.
To date, Elliott Erwitt’s book catalog numbers 25. In all of his books, he insisted that the maker of the photographs and not the publisher hold the copyright.
On finding photo opportunities
It’s about reacting to what you see, hopefully without preconception. You can find pictures anywhere. It’s simply a matter of noticing things and organizing them. You just have to care about what’s around you and have a concern with humanity and the human comedy.
Erwitt was there and took pictures
He has photographed a grieving Jackie Kennedy at JFK’s funeral procession through the streets of Washington, D.C. in 1963, Soviet General Secretary Nikita Kruschev with Richard Nixon in Moscow, Fidel Castro in the back seat of a car in Cuba and Marilyn Monroe with her windblown dress on the set of “The Seven Year Itch.” His career of photographs is one that is preserved in his books. He is well worth a long and loving look.
I met Elliott Erwitt at the opening of his exhibition at Jackson Fine Art on June 9, 1995. He is an engaging, funny and delightful man whose work I have enjoyed since I discovered it in the photo magazines in the early 1970s. I bought his book “Personal Exposures.” He signed it to me with thanks for my purchase.
Read more mini-biographies of influential photographers on Photofocus.